Monday, May 9, 2022

It'a Show Season! (part 1)

After the craziness of the show season last year, I have been dreading the start of the season for this year.  It isn't so much that I don't want Gemma to show, it's that the shows really suck up a lot of time.  The practicing, the clipping, the grooming, the bathing, and sometimes the driving.  Plus the actual time for the show.  And buying the snacks.  And making sure all the show clothes for rider and horse are washed and ready to go and in the truck. (Gemma will never let me forget the time we forgot her boots at home.  It worked out OK because my husband could bring them in time, but she refuses to allow me any responsibility associated with her boots.  Apparently, it was an unforgivable sin...LOL!)

Thankfully, Gemma has gotten better and better about knowing what needs to be done and doing as much of it as she can by herself.  At the grand ole age of 9, she can wash clothes, pack snacks, and do most of the grooming/bathing stuff.  Which is awesome, but I still need to be there for everything.  And I've gotten so possessive of my time that I had trouble figuring out how to mentally prepare for the season this year.  (My biggest fantasy is now to have a single day when I don't have to do something based on someone else's schedule.)

As it happens, time stops for no person, so show season started regardless of whether I was ready.  On April 3, I found myself at the first dressage show of the season.  Gemma was not as prepared as I would have liked, having had little time to practice the tests because the arena at the barn was always set for jumps.  (I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Dear Hunter Riders, instead of jumping your horse every single ride, why don't you try the occasional 20 meter circle?  I promise neither you nor your horse will die from boredom, and it might actually help you learn to balance as you turn from one line to the next...) 

But she was determined to do both Intro B and C tests without me calling them for her.  Last year, she memorized Intro B pretty quickly, and it became her favorite test.  She also did do Intro C for at least a couple of shows (my memory is fuzzy), but I always called the test for her. This year, though, she wanted to let go of the crutch.

So she diligently recited the test at every opportunity and practiced it with just herself in the living room and the barn aisle.  The day before the show, we got the dressage letters set up and ran through the tests quickly on the horse, and while her transitions weren't as clean as they could be, she did have the tests memorized.

Gemma decided that she would show Star for the first show and then she plans to show a little pony named Butters (more about her later) and then hopefully Freya later this year.  Star and Gemma did well, earning good scores.  The main comment from the judge was that the pair needs more energy, but that is a common comment, so I wasn't too fussed about that.  I'm pretty sure that a horse has to actually be flying before a dressage judge thinks it has enough energy:)  I thought Star did well with her walk and trot and just needed a bit of help on one of her canter circles.  There were a few other wobbles, but nothing that can't be worked on for the next show.

One of my favorite things about Star is her ears.  They are such a great indicator of how she is doing.  If they are relaxed and floppy, all is well.

The next weekend was the first hunter show of the season.  I had been seriously stressing for over a week about this one.  The way the show was being run was changing a bit, and I wasn't sure how things would work.  And Gemma would be moving up a division to Short Stirrup.  Last year, she showed in Pre-Short Stirrup, and as traumatizing as it was for me to watch 7 - 15 young kids on spunky ponies aimlessly wander around the arena at the walk and trot, the idea that Gemma would be in an arena with slightly older kids on slightly better behaved ponies WHILE CANTERING was causing me heart palpitations.

Plus, Gemma had decided to add another class to the mix.  She wanted to show a little pony named Butters in Equitation on the Flat.  I'm not sure if I've posted about Butters before, although she may have made an appearance in some videos of Donut out in the field.  She belongs to the barn and is a lesson pony.  Gemma had been riding her for maybe a year before riding Star.  And she was a nice pony, but kind of small and I figured Gemma had sort of outgrown her.

Over the winter, though, I found out she was going to be put up for sale.  She was just a little too much for the beginner lesson kids, and the decision was made that she would be a better fit for either a different type of lesson program or maybe a more advanced little kid.  Gemma helped with the sale video.  And I was sad.  I love Butters.  She is delightful.  I was going to miss her.  I contemplated if I could buy her and swing board for a third horse (no, no, no!) and tried to think if I had time to teach her to pull a cart because she is too small for me to ride at 11.2 hands (no, no, no!).  And then I had an awful wait, that is the Grinch.  Sorry.  It really was a good idea.

I asked Gemma's instructor if Gemma could ride Butters a couple of times a week and maybe start taking lessons on her again to see if riding with a more advanced kid could help.  I remembered that when Butters had first come to the barn, the kids had some difficulty riding her.  I think she was rusty and needed some time under saddle.  And what happened is basically the more she was ridden, the better she got.  Until she was pretty reliable.  But over time, the types of kids riding and the instructors changed, and Butters didn't get used as much.  And she started to need a more assertive rider.

I'm pretty sure Butters is the kind of horse (well, pony) that just needs regular riding to stay tuned up.  Nimo was the same way.  With some horses, you can leave them out in the pasture and then get back on and the horse picks up where it left off.  Star is like that.  I can ride her once a month and she is the same horse.  But most horses do need regular work.  So my theory was that if Gemma rode Butters regularly, Butters would "remember" what she needed to do without needing so much help from her riders.

Unlike many of my ideas that take on the status of "crackpot" in hindsight, this one worked out pretty well.  More time with Gemma really paid off and then Butters was able to start working for the beginner level kids a little better.  And the barn decided to keep her:)  Yay for me!  (Because this was really all about the fact that I just love that little pony and couldn't bear to see her go...)

Anyway, Gemma really started having fun with her.  Butters is a bit more forward than Star and she will zoom around the arena if you ask her.  (Star does not zoom - she considers it to be undignified.)  So Gemma decided that it would be fun if she could show both Star and Butters at the hunter show.  Yep, that sounds like it won't be any extra work at all...sigh...

And there was an added complication that another little girl would be showing Star in Pre-Short and a little girl would be showing Butters in Pre-Short.  Also, Gemma had no idea what Equitation on the Flat was, and neither did I.  Although, I admit that I assumed it was simply a W/T/C flat class with riders judged on equitation, just like every other blessed class at the hunter show that doesn't involve jumps.  (I concluded last year that there are really just two classes at hunter shows - flat classes and jumping classes - and that the show just comes up with an endless permutation of ages and experience levels to generate different divisions to slowly suck my life away.)

So on show day, we would be coordinating two horses with two other riders for four classes that Gemma had never done before.  What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out.  Nothing went wrong.  I'm not kidding.  I've never seen anything like it.  Gemma handled the pre-show grooming and prep for Star and someone else handled Butters.  On show day, we got there early and Gemma and the other little girl riding Star worked together to get her tacked up.  Both Star and Butters did their little riders proud in Pre-Short.  Even the instructor who works with the kids was impressed.  She had never seen Star or Butters show because she is fairly new to the lesson program.  But on show day, both Star and Butters brought their A-games and did really well.  Star moved out so well that her rider actually had to ask her to slow down a bit.  And Butters was a rock star, earning a Reserve Champion in her division.  I was in happy shock.  It was surprisingly rewarding to watch those kids show on horses that Gemma and I have worked with and do well.

Then Gemma was up on Star for her Short Stirrup Division.  As if things aren't confusing enough, there are two Short Stirrup Divisions.  One is judged on the equitation of the rider and the other judged on the horse's way of going.  Gemma was in the equitation division because her riding is pretty good and the timing with the other division that Star was competing in worked best.  So she would have one walk/trot flat class, one walk/trot/canter flat class, and one class over fences with a course of four jumps. 

I wasn't concerned in the slightest about Gemma's or Star's ability.  I was, however, concerned, because there were 15 competitors in the division, which meant 15 young kids cantering around the arena with varying degrees of skill.  I will note that usually this division is usually a bit smaller, so I wasn't expecting it to be so big.  It's possible that I was growing gray hairs just waiting to watch the first class.

Star continued to be her motivated self and she did the walk/trot class really well.  Then the walk/trot/canter class was on.  For some reason, the judge did not realize that there was a parent (me) hyperventilating next to the arena while she had the class canter endlessly.  Like laps endlessly.  Longer than any other class I've seen.  Just before someone needed to medicate me, the cantering stopped, and the class wrapped up.  Again, Gemma and Star did great.  

Finally, it was time for the over fences class.  Gemma had decided to canter the fences, which were probably 15" cross rails with flowerbox fillers.  She did have the option to trot, but she felt Star would do better at the canter.  Her starting circle was a little rough and they missed their lead change at the end, but overall, it was fine.  Star cantered the jumps and was quiet and basically the perfect antidote to the stress I'd been having about the W/T/C class.  



They didn't place in any of their classes, but Gemma didn't care and neither did I.  For me, I was glad that they were alive with no mishaps due to misbehaving ponies or rider errors, and they had done everything Gemma had wanted to do.  There is definitely room for improvement for the next shows, but Gemma has very little experience with flying lead changes at this point, and now she has a better idea of what skills she needs to work on.  And Gemma was so excited after she was done.  She has been waiting and waiting to do an actual jumping class at a show, and she got her wish.  Plus, Star was rock solid, and after seeing some shenanigans from other horses, I think Gemma has an understanding of how priceless a solid, if less flashy, horse is.

But we weren't done.  After we got Star settled with a snack and then back out in her field, it was time to turn our attention to Butters.  The class Gemma was doing with her wasn't until a bit later in the day, but unlike at dressage shows where rider times are known ahead of time, hunter shows proceed based on how many people show up that day and how long the judge takes with each class.

When it started looking like it was time to get ready for the class, Gemma got Butters tacked up and she headed to the warm-up arena.  If you have never seen the warm-up arena at a hunter show, let me assure you that it is a death trap.  There are lots of riders on big, spunky horses paying absolutely no attention to where they are going or what anyone else in the arena is doing.  They never call their lines when they plan to go over jumps and appear to not have even the most basic understanding of physics, particularly the bit about two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.

For these reasons, I have never allowed Gemma anywhere near the warm-up arena.  I make her warm up in either a round pen or the field next to the arena where there are no other people.  But today, Gemma was determined to take the world's smallest pony into the warm-up arena.  Her instructor was in there warming up too, but that didn't give me any confidence because honestly, what could she do when one of the 17-hand horses ran over my child?

I told Gemma she could try, but if I saw any sign of trouble or thought she wasn't paying attention, I was pulling her out and she could warm up in the field.  As it turned out, Gemma did an amazing job of being very aware of where she was in relation to the other riders.  She walked, trotted, and cantered that pony, who was completely comfortable in a sea of large horses.  There were no other younger kids or ponies out there, because none of the remaining classes were for younger riders.  (I discovered that Equitation on the Flat does not have any age restrictions, but in general, it is probably a bit more advanced than younger kids can handle.)  Gemma told me later that she overheard the judge radio to the Secretary's booth that she should be pulled from the arena because she was too little and the judge was concerned for her safety, but her instructor stepped in to say that she was confident Gemma would be OK.  So she was allowed to finish her warm up.  And she did a great job, leaving the arena about one minute before two large horses almost collided right in front of me because their riders were not paying attention.

We waited for a little longer than we thought we would, and then it was time for Gemma's class with Butters.  The pair walked into the arena like they owned it, even though Gemma had very little prep for the class.  What we learned in the few days before the show was that Equitation on the Flat adds some more advanced movements, like turn-on-the-haunches and turn-on-the-forehand, as well as more advanced transitions, like halt to canter and canter to walk.  Just before the show, I had Gemma and Butters take a lesson with an instructor at the barn that specializes in equitation to at least get a basic understanding, but anyone who rides knows that it can take years to do those more advanced things well.  

So I wasn't expecting any great things - I figured it would be more of an experience for Gemma and she would decide it was too hard and not enter the class again.  Because that is the art of parenting.  Letting your kid do something that you're certain will be too hard so they can learn that it is too hard, rather than trying to tell them it is too hard and prohibiting them from doing it in the first place.

Yeah, as it turned out, Gemma got second place in the class, competing against kids much older.  I'm pretty sure part of that placing was the cuteness factor, but they did do all the things.  Not as well as a dressage rider would do them, but they were in the ballpark.  And Gemma LOVED the class.  So this is when the art of parenting backfires on said parent and now the parent is stuck supporting a second horse competing in all the hunter shows for the next six months...

Butters and Gemma make such a cute pair!

But I breathed a sign of relief anyway.  Gemma survived the cantering flat class, the jumping class, the warm-up arena, and the Equitation on the Flat class.  All the coordination with the two horses and the other two riders went really well.  Now we just have to repeat this like six more times...

At this point in the month, I thought I was done with shows, and I was excited about the prospect of three weekends in a row with nothing to do...Stay tuned to find out if that is really what happened:)

Monday, April 18, 2022

A little adventure with Freya, part 4

The day that Gemma had been waiting for finally dawned.  It was the final day of the clinic, and she was scheduled to be the first participant of the day. 

Gemma had worked out a minute-by-minute plan for when we would leave the hotel, when we would feed Freya, when she would brush her, and when she would tack up.  She had also decided that she wanted to work on leading (using the new technique that she had first watched me do and then practiced for two days), next on lunging, and then on asking Freya to stand still while she mounted.  I was hoping there would be enough time to address the braciness that Freya exhibited as well, but I know that sometimes horses don't follow the plan:)

I admit to being a bit nervous...What if Freya had a meltdown or was just too anxious for Gemma to work with her?  What if Mark watched Gemma for a few minutes and said that he didn't think it would be productive to keep working with her?  I have a tendency to be too much in my head sometimes, and this was probably one of those times.  Freya was definitely not as comfortable at the clinic as she is at home, but she hadn't demonstrated any difficult behavior.  And Gemma was confident and excited.  I was mentally prepared to step in to do some in-hand work with Freya for the session if things didn't work out with Gemma, but I really hoped that all would go well.

And it really did.  Mark seemed to have a good time interacting with Gemma and he kept up a witty/funny chat with her as they worked.  "I think this might be the most colorful lead rope I've ever used," he said as he picked up Gemma's rainbow ombre lead rope.  And he made a point to notice all the colors in her saddle pad and outfit, which made her very happy.

Gemma showed him how she was leading Freya, and he told her he thought she was doing a good job on it and didn't have too much feedback for her on improving.  Then she showed him how she lunges Freya.  I would have asked for more movement at the trot, but Freya was completely solid in her behavior and she did lots of perfect circles at the walk and the trot for Gemma.  So nothing to work on there.

Then it came time to work on mounting.  Freya has had an issue with that from when we got her and we've had varying degrees of success on working with her on it.  She mostly just walks off before a person gets on, and we had been handling it by either having someone hold her or getting off the mounting block and then resetting her.

What I had seen people doing at the clinic, though, was this complicated maneuver involving what looked like a figure-8 movement if the horse walked off before the rider got on.  I honestly thought that looked bizarre and overly complicated and I didn't like it.  But I was there to learn, and I hoped that we would learn more about why people were using that technique.  I wasn't disappointed...

Mark asked Gemma to switch from the halter to the bridle to prepare for working on mounting, so he could see what Freya did.  I was the assistant, so I brought Gemma the bridle and took the halter away.  One really cute thing was that while Gemma was bridling Freya, I thought, "Oh, maybe Mark could help Gemma get Freya to learn to put her head down a little bit to help with the process."  As it turned out, that was completely unnecessary.  Freya stood like a saint and dropped her head to the perfect height for Gemma to put the bridle on.  It was pretty cute.  One lady told me afterward that she actually cried a little because it looked so sweet.

Then Gemma walked Freya to the mounting block and showed Mark how Freya started to walk off before she got on.  Mark watched and then came over to ask if he could work with Freya for a bit.  He also asked to swap the bridle for the halter.  So Gemma did that and then handed Freya to Mark.

Mark led Freya toward the mounting block and asked her to stop a little short of where she would need to be for mounting.  Then he got on the block and asked her to come forward.  Initially, she would overshoot the block.  What he would do is allow her to go forward a few steps, then ask her to turn back around toward him and walk past the mounting block in the "wrong" direction.  Once she had gone a little past the block, he would ask her to turn back toward him and he would reset her facing the correct direction, but short of where she needed to be.  Then, he asked her to stop and wait before taking any more steps.  He wanted her to move just one step at a time, with a pause of several seconds or more before taking another step.  Once she was even with the block, he would act like he was going to get on.  When she moved off, he would repeat the process.  If she stayed, he would wait a few seconds and then get off the mounting block and lead her around for a minute to give her a break.

Over the next 10-15 minutes, Mark patiently repeated the process with Freya until she seemed to understand that she needed to stand at the mounting block.  He explained that getting off the mounting block to reset the horse was basically giving the horse a release for moving away and communicating that the horse did the right thing.  So it is better to stay on the mounting block.  For the person to stay on the block and move the horse back to the right place, the figure-8 technique is necessary.  It also allows the horse to move instead of constantly trying to restrict the movement.

That all made sense to me, and I understood a lot better why the technique was used.  (You can see a video of it in Mark's online classroom, which costs $10/month.  The web address is:  The technique seemed to work well for Freya.  She stayed calm and didn't seem to get frustrated.

Once she seemed to understand what was expected, Mark turned her over to Gemma.  Gemma worked on it with Freya for a few minutes.  Mark had to help a couple of times with the turning because of Gemma's lack of height, but otherwise, she did it herself.  One of the most important parts of the technique was the slow process of asking the horse to approach the mounting block.  Mark emphasized how slowly they should go, with just one step and then waiting.  

Once it looked like Freya understood what to do with Gemma, Mark had Gemma put the bridle back on.  And within a minute, Gemma was in the saddle.

Then Mark asked Gemma to halt Freya, and that is when her braciness showed.  So Mark started working on asking Freya to yield just the smallest amount while Gemma was walking her.  Then he worked with me on doing the same thing.  Basically, I walked next to Freya on her left and had my right hand on the left rein.  If her nose went up in the air, I applied a small amount of pressure to ask her to yield through her poll just a little.  Once she yielded, I released.  The idea was to get Freya to understand what the pressure meant and then work with Gemma so she could do it on her own.

It didn't take long for Freya to understand, and Mark commented that she seemed to be comfortable with the pressure.  And then our time was up.

I was so happy that the session had gone well, and we really got a good foundation for the mounting block as well as a start on addressing Freya's bracing.  Gemma was through the moon and so excited about what they accomplished, and she couldn't stop talking about it.  We also got so much support from other participants and auditors.  It was a great introduction to the clinic process for Gemma.

After we got Freya untacked and back in her paddock, Gemma and I watched most of the clinic for the rest of the day.  It was a great experience for me to watch the other riders and how they worked on an assortment of issues.  And one was a young horse that didn't have a lot of education under saddle, so that was interesting to watch as I start thinking about preparing Donut for her work under saddle.  More than anything, it was clear to me how much on-the-ground preparation is key for success under saddle.

The next morning, we were up bright and early to clean the Freya's paddock one last time and head home, with our brains full of new information.

But I still had one lesson left to learn:  Never get into an argument with your phone's navigation system while hauling a horse trailer.  I was insistent that I wanted to go back the same way we had come, but my navigation app wasn't having it and kept trying to route me toward I-95.  I tried my usual technique of just driving the direction I wanted to go and waiting for the app to reroute and eventually get the correct route.  But I didn't really know the roads that well, and eventually I had to give up.  The app refused to reroute me.  

When I finally conceded, the app sent us on narrow backroads and through rush-hour traffic in one town and then there were some crazy get on the interstate, get off the interstate turns before I finally got on the correct interstate highway.  Thus, why Gemma needed her stash of chocolate milk and I needed a donut:)

I hadn't wanted to get on I-95 because it is notorious for back-ups and accidents and heavy traffic.  Which sucks when you are driving a normal car, but is even less exciting when you are towing a horse.  And the route we'd come down on had been almost relaxing.  In the end, though, it worked out.  Traffic wasn't as bad as I thought it would be and we made good time.  (But I am still very bitter at my navigation app...)

It did feel a bit surreal, though, to be headed back into the real world after the sheltered, focused world of the clinic.  We had spent four days away from normal life, but we got a rude reminder of the state of the world when we stopped for gas.  The price was quite a bit higher than when I'd last filled up, and in the 20 minutes we spent at the gas station, it went up 6 cents a gallon!  I wasn't sure what we were headed back to, but my heart and mind were full of good experiences.

I hadn't realized how much it helps to be around people who have the same mindset when it comes to working with horses.  None of the horses at the clinic were rearing up or having fits about general life, which I see several times a week normally.  No one was yelling at their horses, which is also something I see a lot of.  Everything was quiet and calm, even though horse and handler teams were working on some difficult processes.  It was a great way for me to reground myself, and I am beyond thankful that Gemma had a chance to experience it too.  I think we all have a tendency to emulate what we see, and kids in particular will copy the behavior of adults.  So when that behavior is less than ideal, it can lead to misconceptions and bad habits for kids.

I very much hope that we can attend the clinic again next year, and I hope that we can spend this year applying what we have learned and become better horsewomen.

Monday, March 28, 2022

A litte adventure with Freya, part 3

On the second day of the clinic, Freya was scheduled for a bodywork session with Crissi McDonald, who happens to be Mark's wife, but who is also an accomplished trainer and author in her own right.  I have to admit that I haven't read any of her books, but I do read her blog from time to time, and I enjoy the way she writes and thinks about horses.  More recently, she has become certified in the Masterson Method of bodywork, and I was so excited that the clinic was offering sessions with her.  I have wanted to have a certified Masterson bodyworker work with Freya, but there aren't any close enough to us.

I've written about the Masterson Method before.  Gemma and I use the Bladder Meridian Technique frequently on Star and we've been working with Freya on it too.  When we first got her, she was completely intolerant of the use of the technique.  Simply touching her neck was enough to make her dance around and get quite worried.  Over time, though, she has become more accepting, although she still worries a bit, particularly when we work on her neck.  So I was interested to see how a session would work with a professional who has lots of experience working with horses not just in a bodywork setting, but with horses in general.  

Freya's session was scheduled for 10 am and we had an option of where to work with her - in the indoor arena or in her paddock.  I decided that the indoor arena made the most sense.  The session wasn't limited to an hour like the sessions with Mark and Gray, so if horses started moving around outside from their paddocks to sessions with Mark or Gray, I thought Freya might worry.  Whereas, she seemed to be reasonably calm in the indoor arena, especially after my session with Gray the day before.

Gemma led her in to the arena and we met Crissi.  She was exactly like I've seen her on videos with Mark in the online classroom or Facebook.  She seemed like one of those people who is restful to be around and she is kind and thoughtful.  

Crissi started the session with an evaluation of Freya's body.  I didn't get to watch the whole thing because we realized the halter we were using didn't have enough room for her to fully yawn if she needed to, so I went to the trailer to grab a bigger one.  Essentially, though, Crissi seemed to be doing a short version of the Bladder Meridian Technique.  She was looking for problem spots and areas that might need more of her attention.

Then she started working on Freya's neck.  Freya demonstrated the discomfort she has by moving around.  And this was when I got what might one of the top five most useful pieces of advice I've ever gotten when it comes to working with horses.  Crissi said something along the lines of, "It's important to let horses move when they feel like they need to move.  It's the way they manage their discomfort or worry about a situation.  Lots of problems are created when people don't let horses move when they feel like they need to move."

As an example, someone asked Mark about horses that paw and how it should be handled.  Mark said that he used to try to stop the pawing in a variety of ways, but that now, he lets the horse paw, unless there is an issue like the horse is pawing expensive arena footing or there is a safety issue.  He said he does the same thing with horses that like to use their mouths to chew on things.  Again, he said he used to try to stop it, until he started working with Dr. Stephen Peters.  Dr. Peters specializes in equine neuroscience and he explained how important using the mouth to relieve or release tension is for horses.  So Mark says he now tries to let horses chew on something like a lead rope when they need to chew to help them manage their mental state.

As another example, I put this theory to the test after the clinic was over.  Freya was in the wash stall while Gemma was washing her tail.  She got impatient, which she sometimes does, and pawing is one of her primary ways of expressing that impatience.  So she started pawing.  The wash stall has rubber mats, so there was no risk she would dig anything up or cause any problems, so I decided to let her paw and see what happened.  

Another boarder was talking to me at the time, and as soon as Freya started pawing, she actually started to tell Freya no.  (Note: Please do not discipline other people's horses unless you are the one handling them or they are doing something that is directly impacting your safety.  In this case, there was no reason for someone else to intervene, but I think this idea that horses shouldn't be allowed to express themselves has become so ingrained in people that they tell horses no instinctively.)

I interrupted the boarder and explained what I was doing.  And we all watched while Gemma just kept washing Freya's tail and Freya pawed for maybe 20 seconds.  Then she stopped.  And then maybe a minute later she started pawing again, but this time the intensity of the pawing was significantly reduced and she stopped after maybe 5 seconds.  After that, she cocked one hind leg and patiently waited for Gemma to finish washing her tail.  That was pretty cool to see, and I will definitely try to be more aware of ways that I can let the horses I'm working with express themselves and move to help manage their mental state.

But back to the bodywork session with Freya.  She definitely struggled with the bodywork for quite a while.  Crissi stayed with her, though, and let her move around in a small circle for maybe a minute each time she seemed like she needed to move.  Then she would start to ask if Freya could stay still for a few seconds before moving.  And eventually, she got Freya to what I think of as a Zen-like state that I see horses get into when they become very tuned in to the bodywork.  If you are standing next to them or doing the bodywork, you can see and feel them turn inward as they become very aware of how you are touching them and focus their attention on their body.  I wouldn't consider it necessarily relaxed, because there is an intense awareness, but usually a horse that has been moving around and shifting weight and fussing a lot will stop and stand very still.

Crissi wasn't able to go through the entire repertoire of techniques with Freya, because after about an hour, she started to lose her ability to focus.  But I felt like it was such a huge step forward for her, especially after she has struggled with allowing a state of vulnerability and awareness, that I was thrilled.

We took Freya back to her paddock, and I was able to chat with Crissi for awhile.  Crissi's assessment was that she didn't feel any major issues with the work she was able to do, which was good news after Freya's struggle with the health of her feet.  But she did notice how protective Freya was about being touched with intention.  That level of protection is not ideal and probably didn't happen overnight.  Based on Crissi's experience, she thought it meant that there had been some significant length of time where Freya's interactions with humans had not included a sense of consideration for her mental state.  (Note that I'm paraphrasing here, and going off my memory, so I might not be writing this exactly the way Crissi expressed it.)

My takeway was that at some point in her life before we got her, Freya didn't have what she considered to be positive interactions with humans.  It could be tempting to think that maybe she was abused, but I actually don't think that.  Based on my contact with her two previous owners and what I know about how she ended up at the auction we bought her from, my primary working theory is that she ended up in a situation where people had expectations about what she could handle that exceeded her actual abilities.  And when she tried to tell people she was uncomfortable, she was ignored or disciplined.

In all honestly, the story of how she ended up the way she is matters less than that we understand where she is now and come up with a plan to help her get to a better place.  But the reason that I'm focusing on the theory that I am is because I've started paying more and more attention to how the average person interacts with their horse.  And I see a complete disregard for the way a horse feels about something as the norm, plus horses are often disciplined for expressing those feelings. Obviously, there are some safety factors to consider.  There are boundaries that shouldn't be crossed by a 1,000+ pound animal when interacting with humans.  

But there are plenty of things horses do that people try to stop them from doing when it isn't necessary.  Like fidgeting, pawing, chewing, head tossing, even shifting weight.  People seem to expect their horses to stand perfectly still or walk in a certain way, but they don't take into consideration that the way they interact with their horses may have led their horse to think they want something different (like releasing pressure at the wrong time, giving inconsistent cues, or not providing clear direction).  

I have been super guilty of doing all these things myself for probably decades, so this analysis is less of a judgment and more of an observation.  But I can see that an animal who has spent 55 million years evolving into a creature who needs to be highly attuned to its environment and its herdmates to survive must find it very stressful to be around people who don't pay attention to their environment or the animal they are interacting with.  People are on their cell phones while leading their horses.  They are chatting with other people while grooming.  They are day dreaming while riding.

One of the things that I found so interesting about Nimo is that while he had this amazing work ethic under saddle, the second my attention wandered, he would quit working.  He wouldn't start again until he had my full attention.  He very effectively trained me that when I rode, I needed to be focused on him and what we were doing.  (He eventually made some exceptions for me when we were out on the trails for hours at a time, so I could let my attention wander a bit if we were on familiar trails just walking along.)  And paying attention all the time was hard.  I had to build up the mental muscles to do it over a fairly long period of time.  But I learned because Nimo was consistent.  Which tells me a lot about what horses expect and need from their handlers as well as the ability of a horse to understand and maintain focus and awareness.

I don't know that most horses are so good at training their riders, but it occurs to me that even if they don't tell us (or we don't hear them), they still have the same need.  And that the need doesn't disappear when we are working with them on the ground.

I know that since the clinic I have started looking for more ways that I can tune in to the horses I handle and be present when I am working with them.  And I had an interesting experience with Donut as a result.  

Recently, one of the horses in Donut's field started colicking.  Gemma was actually the one who noticed first.  She said it looked like he was trying to pee, but couldn't.  She told me as we were leaving the barn, and I admit that I didn't give as much attention to what she said as I should have.  I was already thinking about getting home and having dinner and enjoying a quiet evening with some time to myself.

But I stopped the truck at the field as we drove out and saw that the horse was now laying down.  Something about the way he was laying didn't look right, so I went out to investigate.  And my conclusion was that he was indeed colicking.  I texted the owner and then got back in my truck and drove back to the barn and resigned myself to a late dinner.  I planned to stay until the owner (who is a friend) got there.

I kept an eye on the horse and when I noticed that he was getting up and then laying down over and over, I asked the owner if I should catch him and try to get him walking.  I wasn't seeing anything violent and I know the guidance on how to handle colic has changed a bit from thinking they need to be constantly walked to letting them stand or even lay down as long as they aren't in danger of physical injury.  But many people still prefer to walk their horses.  The owner said I could try, but not to risk my safety if the horse didn't want to be caught.  He can only be handled reliably by his person (that is a story that isn't mine to tell and would take more than one blog post to explore), although he generally consents to me catching him and leading him. 

Because of the pain he was clearly in, though, he didn't want any humans messing with him, so he made it clear by trying to kick me in the head that he wasn't interested in interacting with me.  Normally, I would discipline that behavior a little more assertively, but in this case, I knew the horse was hurting and defensive.  And honestly, I don't have any skills or training in handling violent horses, so I decided that my goal would be to stay near him and ask him to walk if he looked like he was going to lay down.  My objective was to try to keep him as calm as possible by not getting too close, but to keep him from potentially hurting himself.  

But Donut being Donut decided she wanted to hang out with me.  Right next to me.  And chew on my boots and my hair and basically make a giant pest of herself.  (Yes, I could probably do something about that behavior and over time, I will if she doesn't end it on her own, but she is only 2, and I'm cutting her some slack as long as she doesn't try to use her teeth or do other things that might hurt me.)  And perhaps interestingly, keep herself between me and the colicking horse.  One lady watching said it looked like she was trying to protect me.  I don't have any way of knowing that for sure and your guess is as good as mine.  But Donut stuck to me like glue for over half an hour while I stalked that poor colicking horse and tried to find the sweet spot between asking him to walk but not putting so much pressure on him that he felt defensive.

At one point, the horse seemed to be standing quietly and not trying to lay down, so I let him rest.  Donut was with me, and for maybe 2-3 minutes, we had a connection that felt like what I had with Nimo.  I was worried about the colicking horse, and I felt like a fish out of water trying to handle him from a distance.  Donut stood next to me and rested her head on my shoulder and just stood with me.  Not chewing, not messing with my hair or my clothes.  I'm sure it sounds a bit nuts, but I felt her with me.  Like this mature presence telling me that no matter what happened, I had a friend.

It was an incredible experience and an important reminder that there is so much more complexity to horses than most people get to see and feel.  And it made me think that it was a good thing that Gemma and I went to this clinic, because I think it helped sensitize me to the horses around me and gave me the opportunity to have a connection with Donut that I might not have had otherwise.

Monday, March 21, 2022

A little adventure with Freya, part 2

The drive down to the clinic was pretty uneventful.  I had opted for a slightly longer time on the road in lieu of driving on the interstate, which can be unpredictably backed up and heavy with truck traffic, and it turned out to be a great choice.  It took us about six hours, including a stop for gas and to check on Freya.  She seemed to be taking the trip in stride after her initial irritation at having her plans for the day seriously disrupted.  

When we got to the farm hosting the clinic, I found the owner and asked for details on unloading Freya and parking the trailer.  It was a really nice farm with a great set-up.  We parked next to the paddocks that would be hosting the horses for the clinic and chose one for Freya.  We were one of the first people to arrive, so I worried that the lack of horses in sight would upset Freya.  But she walked off the trailer like she'd always lived there and went straight into her paddock and happily started munching on grass.

The farm was in a beautiful setting with nice paddocks for the horses.

We got water and hay set up for Freya and unloaded the hay and tack trunk from the truck bed and got the trailer organized for the next few days.  After checking on Freya to make sure she was still doing OK, we headed about 15 minutes down the road to our hotel to get checked in.

I had reserved a room at a hotel with kitchenettes so we wouldn't have to go out looking for food and we could focus on the clinic.  We had a little time before the evening session with Mark, so we unpacked our food and supplies and fixed a light dinner before heading back to the farm.

At this point, I was still thinking that it wasn't going to be an issue for Gemma to ride in the clinic.  But when we checked in for the session with Mark, the organizer pulled me aside and explained that Mark was really not comfortable with Gemma participating in the clinic because of her age and that he would prefer if I did the sessions instead.

I was a little bit thrown because I'd already emailed Gemma's experience, and I really thought she'd be OK.  But I can see from Mark's perspective that he didn't know me or Gemma, and I admit that I have seen kids Gemma's age struggle with coordination in the saddle and understanding even basic instructions, even if they have been riding for awhile.  I could tell Gemma was disappointed at the news, but handling it really well.  I asked the organizer if it would be OK to talk to Mark in person about the situation after the session, and she said it would.  I wasn't quite sure how I was going to convince him to let Gemma participate, but I was hoping something would come to me soon...

We spent the next two and a half hours in a Q&A session with Mark.  There were probably 30 - 40 people there and everyone had the opportunity to ask as many and whatever questions they wanted.  Gemma was easily the youngest person there by about 30 years, but everyone was very supportive of her being there.  Even more surprising was that as Gemma listened to the session, she thought of her own question and asked it.  She wanted to know if Mark thought horses could read human minds.  Of course, she already knew the answer is yes, but she was curious about Mark's viewpoint.

As with all of the questions, Mark took her question seriously and provided a thoughtful answer based on some research that had been done.  He said he wasn't sure if horses could read minds, but that research did support some kind of connection.  The study he discussed involved participants who were very scared of horses.  I can't remember all of the details he gave, but the gist of it seemed to be that they put the scared people in a round pen with a horse.  The person was blind-folded and then the person's and the horse's responses were observed.  Again, I can't remember all of the specifics, but I think the researchers found that the horses gave down-regulating signs, like they were trying to help the person feel less scared.  Which is a super interesting result.

I asked Mark how he chooses the horses he buys.  I have a membership to his online classroom, and I've been intermittently following the video series he has done on Top, a horse that he brings to clinics.  And I was curious about how he decided to get that horse.  Because the horse was not without issues, and Mark said he has been working with him for about two years.  He explained that he used to breed and train his own horses, and at one clinic, a woman he was working with expressed a bit of frustration with him as she pointed out that he didn't have to deal with the issues she was dealing with because he bred and trained his own horses.  He said he took her comment to heart and over time eventually sold his breeding stock and started buying horses that had issues like the ones he saw in clinic participant's horses, so he would know exactly what they were dealing with.  I thought that was a pretty impressive thing to do and showed a real commitment to the work that he does.  In the case of Top, he bought the horse off of a video and said he saw something in the way the horse reacted to an error by his rider.  After the mistake, the horse basically just shook it off and went on his way.  Mark said he liked that reaction because it meant the horse could experience stress and then quickly get back to a good mental state.

After the session was over, it was about 8:30 pm.  Gemma and I had been up since 6 am, we'd been on the road for six hours, we had gotten Freya settled in, checked ourselves into our hotel and eaten dinner, and sat through a two and a half hour session.  I knew Gemma was done in for the day, but I really wanted to see if I could find a way to resolve Mark's concern about Gemma's participation.  Zero bright ideas had come to me about how to do that, but I approached him anyway.

I introduced myself and explained the situation and asked if it would be OK to talk about it.  Mark said it would.  So I went through the same points I'd made in my email about her having taken lessons for three years, that she rides multiple horses in multiple disciplines, that some of the instruction she gets is focused on her coordination in the saddle and that she has been working with an instructor on more complicated things like balance of the horse.  While I was talking, Gemma came up to us.  

Mark turned to her and started asking her questions about her experience, her horse, and what she hoped to learn.  And I thought she did great.  She answered all of his questions.  She was enthusiastic and honest.  And I guess she did what I couldn't.  She convinced Mark that she should be allowed to ride with him.  We decided that I would do the session with Mark's student instructor the next day (Friday) and Gemma would participate in the session with Mark on Sunday.

I was so relieved that we'd been able to find a solution, and I had my first good night's sleep in a long time that night.

The next morning we were up at 6:30.  We got ready and packed snacks and then headed out to the farm.  We found Freya in good shape and fed her breakfast and picked manure from the paddock.  At about 9, we headed to the outdoor arena where Gray, Mark's student instructor would be working with people and horses.  I didn't know anything about her, although Mark had explained that he was very selective about his student instructors.  If my memory is correct, there are only eight of them.

Taking instruction from someone I don't know is super hard for me.  Not because I don't want to listen or try the techniques they suggest, but because it is hard for me to trust and communicate with someone I don't know.  To help me do better in my session, I wanted to watch Gray work, so I could get a better idea of what to expect when my session came up.

I really enjoyed watching her.  She was pleasant and focused on working with her student, and she would throw in the occasional joke as well as check her audience to see if they had questions.  Observing her teach definitely helped me feel better about my session with her, which would be that afternoon.

Being nine, Gemma didn't have the attention span to watch lesson after lesson all day, so after the first lesson and half the second, we moved back to checking on Freya and then we went back to the hotel for lunch.  My session was scheduled for 2 pm, so we came back at about 1 to make sure there was enough time to get ready.

I wouldn't be riding Freya - I hadn't even brought a saddle or a helmet.  I knew that any work I did with her would be on the ground.  As I've written before, I really felt like she had a fundamental issue that needed to be resolved with the bracing she was doing, so I wanted to start on the ground first.

We ended up working in one end of the indoor arena while Mark did a session at the other end.  It was at least a full-size dressage arena, so there was plenty of room.  I knew the work we would be doing wouldn't require a huge amount of space, and I thought Freya would be more comfortable if she could see other horses.

When I walked her into the arena, I could tell she was a little nervous.  She wanted to look around a lot and stop and then walk.  I gave her the opportunity to do that while we waited for our time, thinking I was doing the right thing to help her figure out her surroundings.  I later learned that I wasn't helping her as much as I thought I was. 

At this point, I'm going to freely admit that while I have spent decades of my life learning to be a better rider, I have spent very little time actively trying to improve my horsemanship skills.  As a rider, I've still got a lot to learn, but I also feel confident enough in my skills to say that I can classify myself as a good rider.  I don't think I have the skill set to work horses that need special handling, but I think I could ride most horses that don't have serious issues without getting myself into trouble.

Comparatively speaking, the amount I know about how to handle horses on the ground is pretty minimal.  I've been able to get by because I generally interact with horses that have basic skills and good temperaments.  I've read a lot and watched a lot of videos on handling horses.  But when it comes to practical experience with an expert instructor, I've got almost nothing.

Which is one reason I wanted to go to this clinic.  I need to move beyond a theoretical understanding and start using the techniques I've been reading about and watching.  But I know that I need an expert to help me.

So when it was my time to work with Gray and she asked me what I wanted to work on, I explained that I felt like Freya had this low level of worry that I wanted to help her with.  And I mentioned that when I ask her to do something, like back up or move over, she has trouble giving just one step.  Instead, she moves a lot of steps, as if she is compelled to move.  I also pointed out that she was having trouble standing still.

Gray watched me handle Freya and asked a couple of follow up questions, and then she asked if she could work with Freya for a bit.  I willingly turned over the lead rope and watched.

I know I've written about my concern about leading a horse from in front before.  I did some work with Donut on it a few months after I got her and I found it to be very disconcerting and anxiety inducing.  But I had noticed that everyone at this clinic was leading their horses from in front.  And it was clear that after Gray worked with Freya for a few minutes that Freya was perfectly comfortable being led from in front.  Not only that, but her anxiety and trouble standing still was completely resolved.

I learned to lead horses from the side.  In fact, I spent several of my teenage years practicing for showmanship at halter for 4-H shows, which required the handler to be in a certain position on the side of the horse while leading.  What I discovered at this clinic is that leading from the side may be OK after you've mastered leading from the front, but that it isn't where you start.  One of statements I heard over and over at this clinic was that horses need direction from their handlers.  Not giving direction can get you into all sorts of trouble.  In Freya's case, not telling her where I wanted her to be was likely causing her some anxiety or at least not relieving any anxiety that she currently felt.

I was definitely having a moment or two as I processed not only the idea that I may have spent the last almost four decades of my life looking at something as basic as leading a horse in the wrong way, but also that I may have caused myself and my horses unnecessary difficulty because I had never learned a better way to lead.

Gray was not to be deterred from her attempt to help me improve, though, and she gave me back the lead rope so I could practice.  It turns out that the person Mark should have interviewed to see if she could handle the clinic was me, not Gemma:)  My timing was awful, and I struggled to let go of my own bracing as I worked with Freya.  We did eventually get the essentials of it, though, and I found that if I could lead so that the horse was positioned just behind me instead of several feet behind me, I didn't have any worry about being run over by accident if the horse spooked.  One thing that I initially struggled with was the use of the lead rope and making a noise to indicate to Freya that she was in the wrong place.  The most common technique is to swing the lead rope in front of (not at) the horse and make a "shhhhhh" sound to indicate the horse needs to move either away or back from the handler.  My coordination being virtually non-existent and also being a bit self-conscious hindered my early efforts.

The next thing we worked on was addressing Freya's bracing.  We started with the halter and just putting a gentle pressure backward on the lead rope.  The goal wasn't to ask Freya to back up, it was to ask her to soften through her poll, even the slightest bit.  Again, Gray had to start off the exercise, and what she found was the same thing I did.  Freya was very responsive but she didn't understand how to soften.  She started backing her way around the arena, not understanding that she was being asked to soften.

It took awhile - maybe 10 minutes - for Gray to help Freya understand what was being asked.  Gray pointed out that sometimes (probably a lot of times if we are going to be honest) when horses are trained, the training only requires that the horse moves its feet, not that it does the movement with softness.  So bracing or pushing into pressure becomes what the horse thinks it is supposed to do.  It could also be that Freya's reaction developed over time due to inconsistent or uneducated riding.  And Gemma and I had been reinforcing it simply because I wasn't sure how to change the response.  And I doubt I could have done it as diligently and accurately as Gray did.

After Freya understood that the pressure was asking her to soften, Gray turned her back over to me to practice.  Again, my timing sucked and I struggled a bit, but I did get to the point where Gray felt we could move on to the next step.

We swapped Freya's halter for her bridle and Gray worked with her again.  This time applying slight pressure to both reins to ask her to soften her poll.  And by slight I mean something like a quarter pound of pressure.  Just enough so the contact was stable and steady.  It took some time for Freya to grasp what was meant, but eventually she did, and then I practiced with her.  Interestingly, I realized that I might have had an easier time had I been riding, because my coordination in the saddle is much better than it is on the ground.  But as you'll discover, this ended up being good practice for Gemma's session with Mark.  I also want to note that the response Gray was looking for was very subtle.  It could be seen by a careful observer, but it was more of a feeling than anything else.  The movement Freya gave was very slight.  Maybe just an inch of her nose moving in.  The change was really in the way she softened through her poll just a little.

This was the subtlety that I felt was most appropriate for her.  In my Science of Motion work, we had worked toward the same type of goal of yielding through the poll, but the intensity of what was expected was too much for Freya and it worried her.  The softness we were looking for with Gray didn't worry her.  She didn't soften at first not because she was worried but because she simply didn't know what we were asking.

All too soon, our hour with Gray was up.  I felt like I learned so much, though, and that I could now see a way forward with Freya that could help her.

The other benefit was that Gemma had been watching carefully.  She had made herself at home in the arena, befriending another lady who was watching the session.  By the time Freya and I were done, Gemma and her new friend were comfortably seated next to each other on the floor of the arena, actively engaged in a conversation.

Gemma immediately started practicing the leading technique as she walked Freya back to her paddock.  And her timing was already better than mine.

Monday, March 14, 2022

A little adventure with Freya, part 1

"I need a drink!" Gemma exclaimed as she took a swig of her emergency stash of chocolate milk.  I nodded in commiseration and said, "I need a donut!"  Thankfully, I had the foresight to buy an extra Boston Kreme donut the day before, and I reached for the bag next to the driver's seat as my heart rate settled back into its normal rhythm.  

We had just survived the most unusual route thanks to my erratic navigation app, and we were now apparently on the right interstate headed in the right direction toward home, my trailer full of a probably confused Freya in tow.

The events that led to this more-exciting-than-I-really-wanted drive started back in October, when I found out about a clinic in North Carolina with my favorite horseman.  Well, actually, maybe they really started back in February 2003.

Back then, I was still fairly new to northern Virginia.  I had a cute six-year-old Appaloosa named Preacher, and I imagined that he was going to be with me for the next twenty plus years.  He had a mild, intermittent lameness that several vets had been unable to diagnose, but I was confident that it was something minor that we would figure out over time or that would resolve on its own.

I had become friends with a lady who was a big fan of a guy named Mark Rashid.  He had published at least a couple of books by then, and my friend thought they were gold.  She worked as a barn manager for a stable that had 50 lesson horses plus about 15 boarded horses, and she was always looking for ways to handle the horses better and easier.  She found out about a clinic that he would be at and it was only about a two hour drive, so she encouraged me to sign up with Preacher and she would be taking her horse.  The clinic filled fast, and we snagged the last two spots for our horses.

Even though we registered in February, the clinic wouldn't be held until October (I think - my memory is a bit fuzzy on the exact timing).  By then, so much had happened in my life.  Preacher was diagnosed with a fairly advanced case of navicular disease in April and the condition of his feet got worse and worse.  In June, the unthinkable happened, he shattered his hock when he was turned out in the pasture, and it was not something that could be repaired.  I watched while the life ebbed out of a very special horse when the vet came to put him down in the field, because he couldn't walk.

Despite my extreme grief over Preacher's loss, I knew that I would want another horse in the future.  So I held on to my stall at the stable I'd been boarding him, much to the irritation of the owner and probably other potential boarders.  It was then, and still is now, very hard to get stalls at good facilities, and when you do get a stall you only let it go if you absolutely have to.  So I was under a bit of pressure to find another horse to fill the stall. (I was still paying full board, but I guess seeing an empty stall really bothered the owner, and he started sounding like he would force me to let it go if I didn't get a horse soon.)

So I spent weeks looking for a horse.  I eventually decided I really wanted a Friesian yearling.  I would have been happy with an older Friesian, but the price of yearlings was the best my budget could do.  So I think it was about the beginning of August when I made an offer on a yearling named Hjalte.  He was sweet and seemed to have basic skills.  The seller accepted my offer, we signed a purchase agreement, and I transferred the purchase amount to her bank.

And once the money was transferred, I got a frantic call from the seller saying she'd decided she couldn't sell the yearling after all.  It was a bit of a mess, but I did get my money back.  I was definitely soured on dealing with private sellers after that experience, though.

So I turned my attention to a farm in Maryland that had lots of Friesians for sale, and whose business was actually selling them.  I felt more confident in the sales process, and the farm had two yearlings, a filly and a colt, for sale.  I ended up choosing the colt, who was a bit of a handful, but who had a huge personality and a clear love of people.  I made an offer, which was accepted, and then all of a sudden I had a horse again.  His registered name was Geronimo f/t Friesian Conn., but he seemed like a Nimo to me.  So that is what I decided to call him.

Nimo needed to be gelded before coming back to my barn, so arrangements were made, and the surgery was performed.  I was there, and it was hot and sweltering and there were a few complications.  In the end, Nimo was fine, but I admit to no small amount of anxiety while he was healing.

Once he was healed and vaccinated and his hooves were trimmed, a friend came with me to pick him up and haul him to his new home.  One of the first things that I discovered after we got him home was that he had a little trouble leading.  It wasn't so much that he didn't know how.  He did.  It was that he didn't always feel like moving forward.  And that was creating a bit of a problem at the stable.  The stable was a hybrid self-care situation.  Various boarders would do chores like feeding and turnout in exchange for a reduction in board, but boarders were responsible for cleaning their horses' stalls and providing hay and feed.  So the boarders were having a little trouble leading Nimo out to his field.  They solved this problem by feeding him treats with every step.  Sigh...Even then, that horse could con food out of people faster than you could blink.

I knew I had a problem that needed to be solved quickly and that's when my friend reminded me that I had signed up for the clinic with Mark Rashid.  I had forgotten about it in all the events that had happened, and to be honest, I wasn't really that confident that some random horse guy was going to be able to fix this problem.  On the other hand, I really needed Nimo to lead better or he was going to weigh 2,000 pounds in six months with all those treats.

So just two or three weeks after I had brought Nimo to the barn, we headed off to the clinic.  He did great at loading in the trailer, he was easy to haul, and he had no trouble going to a new place.  He was with my friend's horse, who he knew a little from playtime in the arena, so he had a friend, but he didn't worry about being separated from her.

When it was time for our session, I managed to get Nimo into the round pen where we'd be working and showed Mark the problem.  You'd be walking along with Nimo, and then he would just stop, and no amount of finagling would get him going until he was ready.  Mark watched for a few minutes and then suggested a solution - every time Nimo stopped, I would turn around and start acting like a crazy person.  I would be jumping up and down, waving my arms, and yelling.  Well, I can tell you who I thought the crazy person was about then.

But I'd paid a bunch of money and we were already there, so I gave it a try (or maybe Mark did it first and showed me how it worked...again, my memory is a bit fuzzy).  Anyway, Nimo was very responsive to the technique.  It took about 10 or 15 minutes before I got my timing right, and then we were in business.  I vaguely remember using the technique maybe a handful of times more after the clinic, but it didn't take long before Nimo was an equine good citizen about being led to and from his field.

I ended up auditing a couple of clinics with Mark in future years, but I didn't have the resources to pay for a full clinic session, and I wasn't that sure what we would work on.  By the time I realized that I could use some help from Mark and I had the money to pay for it, he wasn't coming to that location or any other location that felt close enough to haul to.  And I also had discovered Science of Motion, and for a long time, I really thought that was the right path for us.  (I still think it was, but I think a few tips from Mark would have helped us immeasurably, and I really regret not seeking out a clinic with him before Nimo died.)  I read all Mark's books over the years, of course, but for me, reading and doing are not even in the same universe, so the information has felt mostly theoretical.  Until recently.

Back in October, I stumbled across a Facebook post by a lady hosting a Mark Rashid clinic in North Carolina.  Well, much of North Carolina is within a decent hauling distance, so I mapped the location and discovered that it was about a five hour drive.  Because of all the hauling I used to do for endurance rides, that didn't feel intimidating, and I immediately emailed the clinic organizer and snagged the last available session with Mark, plus a session with his student trainer, Gray, and a bodywork session with Mark's wife, Crissy McDonald, who has become certified in the Masterson Method.

I was elated.  Even though the clinic was too late to help Nimo and me, it wasn't too late to help my daughter, Gemma, and her horse, Freya.  Freya has been going through her own saga, but at the time I registered for the clinic, I was seeing a lot of bracing in response to pressure.  Like tensing when Gemma put contact, even light contact, on the reins.  I also noticed that while she was incredibly responsive to requests to move on the ground, she was bracing through her response.  For example, if I asked her to back up, she would immediately back 6 steps, but she didn't seem able to soften or yield to the contact.  She also seemed incapable of backing one step at a time, no matter how softly I asked.

I knew that the bracing was a fundamental problem that needed to be resolved before we could advance with her.  I also knew how I would approach it if I was the one riding her, but I wasn't quite sure how to handle it on the ground.  I tried a technique that I watched Mark do with a new horse in his online classroom, and I just couldn't get my timing right.  Plus Gemma was the one riding her, and I didn't think she possessed the feel or the patience to work through the issue under saddle the way I would.

So I put my faith in Mark for the clinic and tried to tread water with Freya until then.  As it happened, she ended up with a chronic thrush infection in all four of her hooves.  I didn't realize it was thrush at first, because it happened during our dry fall.  And there was no odor or oozing fluid.  But she started looking sore on her feet.  I was thinking I was going to have to put shoes on, when my instructor checked her feet and noticed that she had cracks in the bulbs of her heels.  I felt incredibly ignorant, having owned a horse that never had much trouble with hoof infections, and I didn't know that heel cracks are a sign of a sometimes deep infection that can be really painful.

Once I knew, I immediately started treating, but the infection was unresponsive to several highly recommended products.  Finally, I stumbled on a product called No Thrush that is a powder, which was just what I needed as winter came in full force and temperatures were often below freezing, so liquid and gel products couldn't be used.  No Thrush did heal the cracks in Freya's hind feet in about a month, but the front cracks were stubborn, and I ended up doing a round of Today (an antibiotic for mastitis in cows).  That resolved one of the front cracks and made a significant difference in the other.  But I think it is going to be an issue for awhile.  At least Freya doesn't seem sore anymore.

I had pulled her out of ridden work for two months, because she was so sore from her feet that her lumbar area and neck also became quite sore.  I had the chiropractor come out once a month to help with the soreness, and finally, during our early February session, it looked like Freya was starting to feel better.  Shortly after that, I did a lunging lesson with my instructor, and she was moving so much better.

So I put Gemma back on her for short walking sessions for a couple of weeks, and then we added trot back in.  And it was clear that the braciness was still there.  Gemma was able to help work it out intermittently, but I felt we needed a better plan and a more structured approach that made sense to Gemma and Freya.  I should say that I don't think the approaches that were being taken by either of the other instructors we were working with were right for Freya at that time.  Freya's problem was so ingrained in her, we needed to find a very gentle way of chipping away at it without triggering her threshold for feeling anxiety.  Science of Motion techniques were too intense when used by me or Gemma.  I think if my instructor was the one working with Freya, it would be OK, because my instructor has years and years and years worth of experience that we do not have.  But the reality is that Gemma and I are the ones working with her, and we need to find techniques that work for us and Freya.  Luckily, we were scheduled for Mark's clinic.

So on Thursday, March 3, we loaded the truck and trailer, and hauled Freya down to North Carolina.  As I drove, I reflected that I really didn't know what to expect from Freya.  She is generally easy to handle, even if she is worried about something, and I knew she'd been hauled to shows before we got her.  But none of that meant that she would be OK at the clinic.  We were staying four nights, and that is a lot of time for a horse to handle being away from home.  And kind of a lot for a nine-year-old kid too.  But I knew in my heart that this clinic was the best chance for us to find a way through Freya's bracing.

What I didn't realize when we left was that while I knew Gemma would be able to handle a lesson with Mark, Mark was skeptical, so Gemma's participation in the clinic was by no means assured...

Monday, February 28, 2022

Joy is not a crumb

I'm not a huge sports fan.  In fact, sometimes I think the world would be a better place without professional sports.  But that could be because I have the coordination of an amoeba.  (That is probably insulting to amoebas.  I'm sorry, amoebas.)  While I can appreciate the technical difficulty of hitting a ball a bunch of times or running really fast or jumping really high, doing it competitively isn't something that resonates with me.

I do make an exception, though.  Olympic figure skating is a sport that I will make time to watch.  I am fascinated with the performance and how it is tied to music, and few things make me happier than watching a good skate set to fun music.

My husband and daughter love to watch the skating as well, so we set aside time every night for several nights to watch all of the figure skating events during this year's Olympics.  We were collectively excited to see the successes, we gasped at the falls, and we tapped our toes to the music.  My daughter even "performed" along with the skaters, doing her own spins and leaps next to the TV.

The one thing I noticed, though, was that most of the skaters seemed to struggle with one or more parts of their programs.  There were a surprising number of falls among the elite athletes, and it was hard to watch how disappointed some of them were as they judged themselves more harshly than any official judge and certainly more harshly than I did.

But there was one skater who stood out to me.  His name is Jason Brown and he skates for the U.S.  I realized that watching him skate just made me happy.  I was quite literally smiling at the end of his performance.  His face had been joyful during his skating and he was radiant as he walked off the ice.

Yet there was no chance he would get a medal.  And he knew that going into the Olympics.  You see, he didn't include any of the quadruple jumps that have become an unwritten requirement for earning a medal.  The announcers helpfully pointed that out several times.  They also commented on what a beautiful skater he is and how his artistry on the ice is almost unmatched.  Also, his skating was almost error-free.

In the end, he earned a sixth place finish, and he seemed absolutely delighted.  There was no crying, no falling to the ground in despair, no complaining about how the scoring is skewed toward technical difficulty instead of the artistry that he is so good at, basically none of the other behavior that I was stunned to see in multiple events across disciplines in the world's best athletes at the world's most famous games.  Mr. Brown was so excited to be at the Olympics and skating for his country and that was enough.

If you read about his history or watch interviews with him, you can see that his joy seems to be authentic.  He works hard and has overcome challenges, but he truly loves to skate and perform.

Watching Mr. Brown skate and thinking about the way it made me feel sent me down a rabbit hole of reflection.  I remembered how riding and being with horses used to make me feel when I was a kid.  

When I was my daughter's age, I stayed at my grandma's house for a month every summer.  She had a farm, and even more importantly, she had Skip.  Skip was a 16-hand Quarter Horse that I fell in love with.  When he wasn't being ridden or helping work cattle, he spent his time in a huge pasture - maybe 100 acres.  In the heat of the summer days, I would set out on foot from the house and walk the pasture until I found him, solely for the purpose of standing next to him and breathing in his scent.  To this day, I have never found a horse that smells better than Skip.  He smelled like skin and sweat and sun and outside.  When I rode him all over the countryside (by myself!), I finally felt right with the world and I loved every minute of it.  

Of course, I didn't know much about horse care or riding back then.  As time went on, my parents finally relented and got me a horse of my own.  Over the years, I've owned seven horses and had the opportunity to ride many others.  And I learned a lot more about horses.  

But after watching Mr. Brown skate, it occurred to me that as I've gained knowledge, I've lost a lot of the joy I originally felt.  I don't remember the last time I walked through 90-degree heat with the sun beating on me just to smell a horse because the draw was so powerful, I was helpless to resist.  When I'm constantly thinking about what to feed or whether to blanket or how to trim hooves or what training technique to use, there isn't much room for joy.

Certainly, I know the feeling of working on a particular movement for weeks and months and even years and finally achieving it for three seconds before it fades away.  But why should I be content with three seconds of joy every few months?

As the poet Mary Oliver writes:

Don't Hesitate 

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

So I'll be honest.  I have always thought that joy was a crumb.  I thought that life is full of challenges and you work through them the best you can and every once in awhile, you get some happiness as a reward.

But after reading Ms. Oliver's poem and watching Jason Brown skate, I realized that I need to do a rethink on that one.  And that's exactly what I've been doing.  It's hard to change a pattern of thinking and behavior, but I'm working on it a little at a time.  I want the joy of being with horses back.  I want to breathe them in and love being in their presence even if the sun is beating on me.  (It may be slightly harder to experience joy when being bitten by Virginia's excessive insect population, but I'll work on that when the time comes...)

I've taken two steps in my effort to bring back the joy.  The first is that I wear a bracelet with the words etched into the leather so I get a constant reminder.  The second is that I've tried to be more mindful when I'm working with horses.  Donut is handling being tied for a bit longer now, and when I brush her, I focus on being aware of her and on enjoying being with her instead being as efficient as possible.  As I introduce putting on her headstall, I try to feel her body and any tension that she has and let time stop while I let her think through what I'm asking.  When I ride Star, I have given myself permission to feel her underneath me rather than trying to tell her how to move all the time.  And when I lunge Freya, I try to focus less on how she is moving and more on her connection with me on the lunge line.

The interesting thing is that from a technical standpoint, I'm not making huge gains.  No one watches me with Donut and admires how quickly I get her to accept having a headstall put on (because after several days, she still thinks the headstall is possibly some kind of horse-eating alien despite the fact that she is easily haltered by any idiot).  No one watches me ride Star and tells me how amazing we look (because we simply walk, trot, and canter without falling down).  And no one watches me lunge Freya and is impressed with her lofty and articulated trot strides (because her trot mostly resembles a western pleasure horse).

But I have noticed a change in my mental state.  When I'm not constantly facing an internal dialogue of what I need to be doing to do better, I can feel more from the horse.  And I'm not as worried about problems.  Because seriously, why does it matter if it takes Donut a month to learn how to wear a headstall instead of 20 minutes?  And if Star never competes in 2nd Level dressage, well, I suspect it won't matter to her at all.  And if it takes Freya several months instead of several weeks to learn how to improve her trot on the lunge, what is the big deal?  She's been moving like a western pleasure horse for 8 years, it's probably not going to kill her to move that way for another few months.

In my quest to do better for the horse, I think I lost sight of the horse.  I've spent so much time and money educating myself and trying to make my interactions with horses better.  Taking lessons, reading books, watching videos, attending clinics.  And all of that is valuable.  And I'm certain my horses appreciate better care and better skill from their handler.  But it's time to focus on something different.  I need to be less interested in approval from my instructor or my barn owner or a judge or my horse friends and more interested in approval from my horse.  And I want to rekindle the joy I felt as I child.

This kind of effort is a game-changer, I think.  I'm not quite sure how it will work out, but the idea that joy could be a significant part of my time with horses instead of a blip on the radar screen is so appealing that I can't stop thinking about it.  The great thing is that I have a wonderful role model in my daughter, who loves every minute she spends at the barn and with horses, so if I lose my way, I can look at her and get my bearings again.

Gemma and Star.  Photo by CarlyGPhotography.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Donut Update

Before I wrote my last post, I had planned to write an update on how Donut was doing.  The events of that day eclipsed the mundane details I was going to write, so I decided to delay my post on Donut's more boring life:)

She has basically been living the good life for the past few months.  She is out 24/7 and only comes in to the barn when I bring her in, about three times a week.  I haven't been doing a whole lot with her, because I've been supporting Gemma's efforts with Freya and Star, but also because there really wasn't much of a reason to get too intense.

However, as Donut approaches her third birthday, the time is coming where I want to acclimate her to more serious work.  Normally, I bring her in to her stall for her to eat dinner and some alfalfa hay, and I brush her and pick out her feet and sometimes trim them.  Donut is pretty compliant about most things when she's eating, so it is an easy 10-15 minutes of interaction, and then I turn her back out.

My plan is to start Donut doing some in-hand work in April this year.  I will probably also add some lungeing and ground driving.  I don't plan to do any under saddle work with her until she is four, but I will do things like have her start working in a bridle with a bit and wear a saddle at least some of the time.  I may even sit on her and practice having her stand at the mounting block while I get on.  I'll just see how it goes.

When I trained Nimo, I didn't know about in-hand work, so I didn't use it, but I did do a lot of lungeing and a little ground driving for about a year before I started him under saddle, and I think it really paid off.  When I finally got on, it was a nonevent.  Which is what I would like for Donut too.  (Also, I am older now, and would very much like to avoid any theatrics that result in me landing on the ground.)

But before I can get to the point where I'm introducing a bridle and saddle and all sorts of other new things, I wanted to work with Donut on standing while tied.  Nimo came to me already knowing how to be in cross ties and that is the predominant method of tying in this area.  At the barns that I boarded Nimo at, cross-tying was the best way to groom and tack up a horse.  I didn't work on regularly tying him until I started hauling him to shows and tying him to a trailer.  It was never a big deal, though, and it didn't take long before he was pretty trustworthy.

At the barn I'm at now, though, there aren't a lot of good places to either cross tie or tie regularly.  There is a wash stall in the barn that has a set up for both cross ties and regular tying, but it is in almost constant use and people are always going in out with feed buckets and other stuff that they want to rinse out.  So it isn't the best place for me to use to teach Donut how to tie because of the lack of consistency and the activity level.  Once she knows, then it will be good to use the distractions as a way to reinforce the behavior.  And tying in front of the stall is problematic because there is stuff there, like blankets and halters and a tack trunk and hay.  So Donut is going to be in all that stuff.  The aisle is out of the question too because it is huge.  Instead of a normal 12-foot span, it is 24 feet, making cross-tying impossible.  (Some people at the barn actually have horses that ground tie in the aisle.  We actually do that with Freya and Star a lot of the time, but ground-tying is later on my list of things to do.)

The one option I have is to actually tie in the stall, (which in hind sight turns out to be a good thing).  So that is what I've been doing for the past six weeks.  I bring her in and let her eat her dinner and some alfalfa while I do my usual routine of some grooming and work with her feet, but I save something for later.  After she is done eating, I move her to the other side of the stall and tie her while I do whatever the thing is that I have left.  Sometimes it is picking out her feet.  Other times, it is some brushing.  I also make sure to include lots of good scratches and petting.

When I first started doing it, I didn't actually tie the rope.  I just looped it through the post I was tying around so there was tension, but if she got scared and pulled back, the rope would slide.  That worked for a couple of times, until she figured it out and would set herself free in about 30 seconds.  (Smart horses are sometimes a pain in the butt...eye roll.)  So then I held the end of the rope so she couldn't pull it out and let her get into trouble.  I let her get her head under the rope so there was pressure on her poll, and then I asked her to lower her head to get out of it.  I let her back up or move to the side so much that the rope was tight and then I would ask her to move to release the pressure.  Once I felt comfortable that she understood the rules, so to speak, of being tied, I actually tied a knot in the rope.  

I don't leave her unattended at this point, but I do go in and out of the stall, so she learns that she needs to stay with the rope and not with me.  I also move around her whole body and while I don't expect her to stand perfectly still, I do expect that she doesn't move in such a way that she is crowding me.  So if she moves toward me at any point, I push her back over.

I keep the sessions very short.  I started out just doing about a minute at a time, and now we are probably closer to five minutes.  I don't do anything that she doesn't already feel comfortable with, and I try to do some things that I know she really likes.  I don't want her to associate being tied with bad stuff happening to her.  Of course, at some point, less comfortable stuff will happen, like clipping or bathing, but my goal is to create a solid foundation before I start introducing new stuff.

I know lots of people will use something called a Patience Pole to introduce young horses to being tied.  And we do have a pole at the barn outside that could be used for that.  My understanding is that the method involves tying the horse by itself to the pole and leaving them there for a couple of hours or however long it takes for the horse to realize that they are stuck there, so they might as well settle down and stand quietly.  But I have to admit that that method doesn't resonate with me. I don't like the idea that the horse is left alone with no food and water and that it could feel trapped into compliance.  (Obviously, this method could be modified to leave a haybag for the horse and keep buddies tied nearby, but again, I don't have access to a set-up for that.)

One variation that I have seen that I like better involves tying several horses together along a fence line.  The horses are spaced so that they are close, but not so close that they can kick or bite each other.  Each one gets a hay bag and they are standing so that they can see the arena where the trainer works the horses.  This method lets horses be together with their friends and have something to do.  They can also watch training sessions, and for horses that learn by watching (I've known more than one that does!), that could be invaluable for helping them in their training.  The problem with this method for me is that I don't have a place where I could tie several horses together (because I could totally use Freya and Star to help Donut).

I will likely use a variation of this method, though, for tying at the trailer.  There is a good space at the barn where I could park the truck and trailer out of the way, but where the horses can still see things, and I can tie Freya and Star with Donut to keep her company.  So once Donut starts being able to stand comfortably in her stall for 15-20 minutes at a time, I'll probably add in the trailer tying.

The thing I like so far about tying Donut in her stall is that it is a place that she is already very comfortable in.  And I'm only doing things with her that she knows.  And I'm keeping it short.  So there is only one new variable - being tied.  I think Warwick Schiller is the trainer I've heard say that the goal should be to introduce only one new variable at a time to make it more likely that the horse will not be too stressed and you'll have a positive outcome.  I really like that way of approaching training.  Sometimes it isn't possible and of course, things happen that can't be controlled.  But whenever possible, I'm trying to take that approach with Donut.

Another benefit of being tied is that the horse does learn that their life is not totally their own.  I think that is an important thing for young horses to learn, but it can be a harder lesson for some of them.  Donut is definitely a horse who likes to do her own thing.  She enjoys being around people and watching things and doing things, but more on her terms.  So standing still for any length of time when she really wants to be moving is very hard for her.  Which is why I'm super pleased with how she is doing with being tied.  There has been zero drama, even the first time she hit the end of the rope and couldn't move more.  I could see the momentary frustration she felt, but she didn't act out or pull back or kick.  She waited.  So I think that is a good sign that she is ready to slowly proceed to doing more work that involves a human-initiated thing instead of whatever she feels like doing.


But I don't think methods that involve wearing a horse down or trapping them are going to be a good fit for either me or her.  I like the more gradual approach, and I'm lucky that I have all the time in the world.  I know that isn't true for everyone, and I get that sometimes time matters.  Certainly for professionals who are either being paid to put a horse under saddle or training horses to sell, time is money, and very few horses actually sell for a price that reflects all the time and resources that are put into them.  They would be unaffordable for lots of people.  

For example, if I sold Donut as a four year old trained to walk, trot, and canter under saddle, I would have to charge about $32,000 to recoup what I put into her.  Yes, you read that right.  Here's how I calculated the amount (assuming I've had her for three years):

    Board = 12 * $425 = $5,100 * 3 = $15,300

    Hoof trimming = 10 * 40 = $400 * 3 = $1,200

    Medical care (vaccinations, check-ups, deworming) = $300 * 3 = $900

    Supplements = 12 * 50 = $600 * 3 = $1,800

    Training Year 1 = 78 hours (30 min. 3x/wk) * $20 (a pittance for time) = $1,560

    Training Year 2 = 78 * $20 = $1,560

    Training Year 3 = 260 (1 hr 5x/wk) * $40 (cheapest rate I've seen for trainers to ride your horse in this area) = $10,400

So that adds up to $32,720.  Note that these are prices for the area I live in.  Other parts of the country are cheaper, I'm sure.  And I've made some assumptions about how much time is spent with the horse and what they are getting for care.  But I think I'm in the ball park.  And it shows just how much value is put into bringing a young horse into under saddle work.  And none of that amount takes into account bloodlines or athletic ability.

I think I got a little off-topic here, but it is something I try to remember when I see how quickly a lot of young horses are put under saddle.  Many trainers will take a lightly handled three year old and have them trained to walk, trot, and canter in just a few weeks.  But they are usually skipping or rushing steps.  Often that training doesn't include any ground work at all.  In this area, full training board starts at about $1,200 a month and goes well above $2,000 a month for the nicer facilities and higher level trainers.  It's something to think about if you are interested in buying a young horse versus an older horse, especially if you have to hire a professional to help, which you definitely should do if you don't feel comfortable doing it yourself.  Even though I do most of the work with Donut myself, I still have check-ins with my regular instructor and will have regular lessons with her once she starts in-hand work to make sure I'm staying on track and to trouble-shoot any problems that come up.

Anyway, hopefully the work with Donut continues to be no big deal for her, and within a couple of months, I can start to introduce a bridle with a bit!