Tuesday, January 31

Compliant vs Trained

What is the definition of a trained horse? To me, a well trained horse will do his job for any level rider or handler capable of asking for it. He needs to know what the job is and perform it when asked. The rider shouldn't have to do a lot of holding, tickling, squeezing, begging, clucking, or smacking.
How well trained is your horse? Are you the only one who can get him to accomplish certain things? If the average user (with an appropriate skill level for your horse) can't get close to the same performance you can from your horse, you may be guilty of just getting him to do things rather than training.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we teach our horses to do things. Because of our impatient nature, it's easy to get ahead of the program and push to the more advanced (more fun!) steps. But what does this do to our horse? If they are not confident with each increasingly difficult step, they will never be independant in it. If we let our impatience get in the way of our training, we really shoot ourself in the foot. Because as each stage comes along we are holding, helping, and asking our horse more and more. This limits us, because we can only help so much. If we want our horse to improve, we have to train their mind and body to accomplish the task when we ask for it.. not when we manipulate their body into doing it.  It's easy to just get-them-to do things rather than teaching them how to accomplish them in response to a cue.

When you ride  next, take the time to pay attention to your horse. Do you get responses to your cues? Or is getting advanced maneuvers more like trying to load a great dane into a lifted pickup? If the latter is the case, maybe it's time to slow down and go back to basics. Find the holes in your horses training. Break each maneuver down to it's most basic element and build up from there only as fast as your horse can go. Do not move onto the next step until your horse can reliably respond to the cue for the step you are currently on. If you are interested in a detailed example, Please visit this page, where he talks about getting control of the hindquarters.

Thursday, January 26

Am I Cheating?

I was going to write a post about the benefits of using long and low, and how riding in this posture helps prepare a horse for collection; but I found this video on youtube. It's so good. Please, watch it. Then we should talk about it in the comments. :)

Tuesday, January 24

We ALL Need an Attitude Adjustment Sometimes

You know those days at the barn where your horse is happy to see you, and you are happy to see your horse. You have a great ride, and as you head back to put your horse away a big rainbow appears in the sky and birds fly up and land on your shoulder and sing you a beautiful bird song. Oh wait, that’s starting to sound a little like a Disney cartoon… but you know what I’m talking about. Why don’t we have that all the time?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming our horses for a bad ride, but is this really fair? Let’s pick up the boss analogy again. A good boss only gives their employee tasks that they are capable of completing, gives the support the employee needs to finish the task, and acknowledges the accomplishment when the job is completed. How often are we bad bosses when we ride? Do we set our horses up for success, support them, and reward when they get it? Or do we let our expectations or memories from a previous ride clutter our mind and give our horse mixed signals? It’s easy to do, and the habit is hard to break. “He always spooks there” “You can’t do that to him from his off side” “He doesn’t do XXX” How many times have you said something like this about your horse?  How much of this behavior is human driven rather than horse driven?
When we ride our horses, a cluttered mind can really affect their performance. Horses, unlike humans, operate in the moment. They don’t have a master game plan or set of goals when you pull them out of their paddock. One minute they were eating or sniffing poo or whathaveyou and, the next, you came to catch them for a ride. We humans are great at making plans and goals, but where we fall short is helping the horse to clearly understand and accomplish them. We can inadvertently muddle our signals with tension in our body or mind. Our horses are so incredibly sensitive they can pick up on whatever physical or mental baggage we brought to the barn.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that if we just do it right then our horses will magically turn into the most obedient, cooperative critter in the world. They are still big prey animals with a mind and personality of their own. Certain individuals will always be more cooperative and pliable than others. Sometimes they ignore our wonderful leadership, but if we can stay consistent, clear, and patient they will usually come around to our way of thinking… eventually.
 I find, when I’m  not getting the response I want from  the horse, it helps to stop and take a little break; sometimes I let the horse stand and air up or walk on a loose rein. I don’t come back to the exercise until we have both calmed down, and I have figured out a simpler step to ask the horse for. By then, we are usually on the same page and ready to get back to work.
Lately, I’ve been searching out times to ride when the arena is empty. I leave the radio off, put my phone on the rail, and really focus on the ride at hand.  I want to be able to read my horse and give him the right workout for where he is at that day. It’s a struggle. It’s so easy to become distracted or frustrated, but the results speak for themselves. I’ve had some of the best rides ever in my life over the last couple of months. It’s exciting and makes my brain hurt at the same time.

Tuesday, January 17

Things that make you go.... HUH??

I've been wanting to do a post on this topic, but have been scouring the internet in an attempt to find a "pro" argument that would explain why it's not as bad as it looks.... I still haven't found one. Today's topic is the "Mexican Dancing Horse".

I figured this was a traditional performance, and as such maybe I had it misunderstood. However, from what I have read, this is a fairly recent trend, only becoming popular over the last 30 years. Possibly a copycat of dressage's beautiful piaffe, then? For a horse to perform piaffe correctly, they should appear to be trotting in place. In order to do this, they must build up the muscles over a long period of training to learn how to balance themselves and keep rythm and relaxation.  Find more info on piaffe here. It looks a little something like this:

Notice how the horse is lowering down in back, maintaining tempo and impulsion (for the most part- he does lose his hind end just a bit at one point), and is relaxed and quiet in his work? Now let's compare that to this training video of the horse we saw in the first video. Make a note of the way his hind end is popping up. You can also see the chains used to help exaggerate his leg action- the ends are left long to swing up and pop them in the legs to get them to snap up quicker and higher. 

Now I'm not an expert here, but that horse doesn't seem to happy and relaxed in his work to me. This horse dancing business, like any other equine sport, surely has it's good eggs and bad. I'm sure there are trainers out there who take the time to develop their horses properly, but the "tie them up and smack 'em till they do it" method seems to be much more prevalent. You can visit this page for some further discussion as well as another video showing multiple horses in action. 

Monday, January 9

How NOT to Advertise: Leopard Friesian Stallion

I stumbled across this video a few days ago on youtube, and I wanted to share with you guys. This video pretty clearly illustrates how you should NOT advertise a stallion. Enjoy the show!

Let's start with the basic qualifications for breeding to a stallion. We want to make sure they have good conformation, temperament, and movement. These are the bare minimums! Generally we would like to see that they have been successful at something, but that's not important to everyone. It's also helpful when shopping online to mention the basics of height, weight, and life experience. They call this a "Leopard Friesian Stallion" but he's really just a grade appy friesian cross. Sure, you might get a spotty baby from him, but it's hard to tell what else you might get. Certainly not something you can register!

Let's talk about the good from this video: rider and horse both appear to be well groomed and have on appropriate equipment for the activity going on. That's about it.

Now let's talk about the bad! Starting with the definition of video shall we? Generally, when posting a video, one posts video footage... not just photos. Clearly these shots were taken the same day, would it have killed them to grab a video camera too? This is important for someone who may be thinking of breeding to this horse without actually being able to see him in person. You can catch a photo of almost any horse looking beautiful,  but video doesn't lie. So big FAIL in the movement department. Temperamnet is a crap shoot, although in one photo, you see the rider is quite obviously having trouble making his ride look easy (in the open field, cattywompus hands, and his legs always look like they're working waaay too hard), and in one of the side views you can see how far forward his saddle has slipped. This is either due to poor conformation/saddle fit OR (as I've seen on many a kids pony) this guy has pulled himself up onto the horses neck just trying to keep the beast under control. We'll never know, though, because the two measly conformation shots themselves are at a poor angle, and the background makes it difficult to see him.

What do I see in this video? A barely green broke, grade stallion who was bred out of two completely different types of horses. He has a weak hindend, possibly downhill build, and a ridiculously upright neck. Needless to say, I won't be breeding to him under any circumstance.... even if I might get a Sooper Speshul Krazy Kolored baby!

Wednesday, January 4

Feelin' the pressure!

Riding and training horses boils down to one major element. Pressure. How successful we are with horses depends on how we apply this pressure- the intensity, timing, and release. Because horses don't speak our language (and it's a good thing or I'd be out of a job) we have to use pressure to help them figure out what we are asking. We release when they have completed what we ask. When a horse is just learning, we release when they start heading in the right direction. A turn, for example, may start with the horse just tipping their nose in the direction we are signaling with the rein. If we stop here, they know they are on the right track. We can ask for a little more next time and keep the experience positive for all. This is hard for humans because we are so goal oriented and focused. It's no problem for us to work for an hour trying to get that perfect circle, but we have to take our horse into consideration. They have no idea what we want, and can only take their cues from our responses to their actions. If every time they try we are pushing for a little bit more... it's not a very good incentive for them to try at all. 

Now let's try a human world analogy. Imagine you just landed a new job in a new country where you don't speak the language. You walk into your cubicle in the new office, and on the desk is a stack of paperwork. You're not sure what it all is or how to complete it, so you sit down and wait. Your boss comes in, and points at a mysterious machine in the corner, but he doesn't speak english and can't explain what to do. You've never seen anything like it before. How would you react? Personally, I'd continue to just sit there and not do anything. Because I don't know what he wants me to do or how to do it, I would wait for him to give me better directions. I know he wants something with the machine, though, so we are having some sort of communication. Unless he changes his tactic, I'm probably not going to get the lesson. Now Mister Boss Man has two options: he can continue pointing at the machine and hope I get it, or he can be more creative with his pointing. If he continues pointing (maybe over and over again and more dramatically now) you will probably begin feeling a little stressed. He obviously wants you do to something.. NOW! So you might start taking guesses, examining the machine for a button or a sticker with directions, but ultimately, you are probably going to need more help. So, let's see what happens if he follows option number two. If he gets more creative maybe he will start by pointing at the on button on the machine, then to a piece of paper on the desk, and finally at the slot on top of the machine. If you seem doubtful maybe he will point at the paper and then down into the slot. "Oh, I'm supposed to stick it in there?" you'll think to yourself. You may still be a little unsure. Maybe you make a motion like you're putting the paper in the machine. He smiles and gives a big thumbs up- you figured it out!

Every time we ride or handle any horse, we are Mister Boss Man. We use pressure to communicate, but we have to make sure that our horses are understanding the message. It's easy to get upset that a horse isn't responding the way we want, but when we remember that they may not know what it is we're asking for, it's easier to take a deep breath and try again. The best bet with a horse is to make the steps very very small and close together. For a human looking at the end result, it can get really tedious; but the difference in the end result speaks for itself. 

Monday, January 2

Before it seems totally out of place...

I guess I could introduce myself and a few of the people/ponies I will end up talking about.

This is me and my four (4?!?!) horses. I started riding with some regularity at 7 years of age. I attended local horse camps and took group lessons for several years. In my early teen years I rode with a great horseman and friend named Pastor Joe. He kept a few horses around for fun, and we team penned, trail rode, and did some reining. It was all a lot of fun, but I wasn't getting a ton of riding education at this point. I got my first horse for my fifteen birthday; Mack was a coming three year old quarter horse. Pastor Joe and his son got him started for me and then turned over the reins to me,  and that's when I realized I was totally out of my depth! I started taking lessons at a local barn with a great instructor named Kristal. I was able to rapidly improve my riding with regular lessons, and I also really enjoyed learning how to train my horse. When I turned eighteen, Kristal offered me a job teaching lessons. I participated in an instructor training course, and I went through CHA certification. That pretty much brings us up to now. I've been teaching for five years, and I'm now focusing on developing my training skills. I teach about 20 students on a weekly basis, and my favorites are 4-H kids :)

And now for the ponies! On the far left is Trip. He's an 8yo AQHA gelding. I've owned him since July, and he's a retired roper. He's going to be competing in 4-H this year, and I'm participating in a cattle sorting series with him this winter. Next in is Duke, my 11yo paint gelding. He's a really versatile guy who enjoys trails, performance, and cattle work. He's leased by one of my adult students, and I hope someday soon she'll be able to buy him. The handsome fella with the blue halter is Jasper. In December of 2010, he was rescued from the Enumclaw Sales Pavilion. His stall card read "6 year old gelding, has bucking problem". YIKES! But a good friend of mine saw the good in him and brought him home. He came to live with me in September to compete in 4-H and act as one of our school horses in the lesson program. He really excels in dressage, although with some work I think he'll be a great all around guy. Last but not least, Cricket is that cutie in the red halter. He's an 11yo POA. He's a busy boy and will be showing in 4-H with 2 riders this year. He loves to jump, but also participates in performance, dressage, and gaming. When he's not busy preparing for the show season, he also gives a few lessons when we need a fill in. 

There's a lot more folks in this cast of characters, but I really needed to use this picture up before July when the santa hats would be too silly ;)