Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2 Sides to Every Issue

Traditionally, we do stuff on the left side of the horse. Lead, bridle, saddle, mount, dismount, etc. Tack is made to be handled from the left side. Blankets, halters, bridles, girths and more are all designed to be fastened on the horse's left side. And then we ride and we say to our horses: Disregard everything I have done to this point, now you must be equal on both sides, both leads, both directions.

The left side thing is something people invented. Horses don't care. They don't care, unless they've only had things done on their left sides, that is. When I work with horses, I make an effort to do everything on both sides as much as possible because I don't think it's fair or healthy to only work from the horse's left and then expect him to be ambidextrous in the ring.

Leading horses from the left was developed because most people are right handed so then they would be holding the horses with their dominant hand. Left handed people were out of luck. Mounting & dismounting on the left was started by the knights who were right handed and wore their sword scabbards on the left. It was pretty tricky to mount a horse on the right by swinging a left leg encumbered by a sword up and over the horse without leaving a mark. Plus, since they were already leading their horses on the left, it didn't make much sense to walk all the way around to the other side to get on.

Which is how I came upon the idea of doing things on both sides. Sheer laziness. One day, tacking my horse up in the barn aisle-way, I picked up my saddle from the saddle rack on the right side and considered how I was supposed to walk all the way around to the other side to put the darn thing up. That's just silly. Then it just made me think about the silliness and impracticality of working on the left in general.

I suppose the idea actually started to from way back when I was in college. A friend of mine was graciously allowing me to exercise her Appendix mare. There was one caveat - she would take off as soon as you get a foot in the stirrup. Not having enough experience or knowledge to know how to deal with that, I would cheat by getting on from the right. She wasn't expecting that and so had no anticipation or flight instinct. It worked for me and for her. Not only was it safer for me and anyone else riding in the arena at the same time, but it was certainly healthier for her back. Always mounting from one side means a consistent pull in one direction on that horse's back muscles. It also leads to one stirrup leather getting stretched out more than the other and even twisting in the saddle tree. Not only that, but from the point of view of rider fitness, you'd have stronger quads on the left from the thrust of lifting yourself into the saddle and one hip that was more flexible than the other from lifting over the horse's back.

Can we, as compassionate riders, ask our horses to bend equally, stretch equally, carry weight evenly, while we ride with one strong leg, one loose leg and one dominant hand? That smacks of irresponsibility to me. Not that I'm perfect (far from it) but I try. I do find myself cheating when something is difficult and switching to my right hand, but I try to recognize that and even out.

So for your horse's sake, and your own as well, be responsible and possibley lazy, and saddle up from whatever side of the horse to which you're closest, lead from the left and the right, and try to see both sides of every issue.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Big Horse part deux...

Have I gotten to the part where I hated this horse yet? The more I rode Raffles the more I discovered and disliked his bad habits. He had a persistent and purposeful spook, he bucked like a slingshot and he gaped his jaw and pulled his reins. The more I tried to correct these behaviors, the more he liked it. Raffles loved getting into a fight and I was stubborn enough to not back down. And Dressage shows! Dressage shows were a study in embarrassment and frustration. Raffles is undeniably talented, athletic and amongst all the the fighting, had become very well schooled and was moving up the levels. As good as he was, it was a struggle for us to get into the 60% range because of the spooking. At each show, he'd pick something and that would be his focus throughout the whole test. It could be the flowers at M (but not at A, C, E, B, or any of the other letters), it could be one particular letter, or the horsey statue by the judge's table, the coil of extra fencing lying just outside the ingate.... It was always something. Raffles wouldn't just spook at something either. He'd spook every time he went by and would prepare for the spook starting at the other end of the arena. He'd come down the long side as if his parking brake were left on, eyes big as saucers, back hollowed and dropped somewhere around his fetlocks, and his neck like a lead pipe. The judge, never being impressed by his display, always gave scores for submission that were abysmally low.

It got to the point where I hated riding this horse. I avoided riding him. Dreaded riding him. Hated it. Which meant that when I did dredge up the ambition to ride him, I had no patience, was irritable and fought right back.

Contemplating the problem, I decided that the only solution was to learn to like the horse. I told myself that I had to learn to get along with him and we needed to start having some fun. Putting Dressage shows on the back-burner for the moment, we started going to some little local pleasure shows, did some jumping and trail riding and tried out some tricks. In doing so, I found out what my HORSE likes to do. He liked to show off. He liked to show off in a crowd of other horses so that he felt safe and he loved the cheering crowds. There isn't a lot of cheering at Dressage shows. Nobody whoops and hollers when we go in extended trot on the diagonal in a Prix St. Georges test. There may be some polite golf-clapping applause at the end of the test, but not always.

Things were still the same at home, he continually spooked down the long side of the ring and bucked if I told him to get his rear in gear, but now we had something to look forward to. I had found a reason to appreciate my horse and a way to have fun again. The clincher was taking him to the big shows put on by the Arab clubs. There are Arabs, Morgans, Saddlebreds, Friesians and an occasional Quarter Horse or Appaloosa, but no Warmbloods. Raffles fit right in with the snorting, fire-breathing, leg-flinging horses at these shows. He won a bunch of classes and developed his own fan club. People would stop by his stall and tell me that they go down to the ring specifically to watch his classes. Raffles loved doing a victory lap and always knew where the photographer was. He was a rock-star.

We've tried going back to Dressage shows and ended up leaving in disgrace, so I have stuck to the pleasure shows. As long as Raffles has a horse in front of him (that any potential monsters would eat first, thereby giving him the opportunity to get away) he was perfectly happy to go around the ring. He still bucks, especially when he gets carried away in Road Hack classes. He still spooks at ridiculous things. The difference is that I have learned to accept that and do not fight him about it. I still try to ride him through it and keep his attention but without having a snarling argument about the issue.

We have had some very memorable moments at the shows and the time spent with him has allowed me to bond with him in a way we don't get to at home. He will always be the same foolish horse that swaggers around the farm, ogling at mares, and threatening to bite the heads off small geldings. He will always spook and buck and pull his reins. The difference is that I have learned to ride him. Sure I may have helped him learn tempi changes and half-pass but only because I learned to train him around his personality, not through it.

At 24, Raffles has settled down a little but not enough. Now, I love him; love riding him and showing him. Do not love the spooking, but we deal with it. The too of us are like an old married couple. We bicker, but don't fight. He puts his ears back, I call him a knucklehead, he tries to step on my foot, I holler at him to knock it off, ... but that's just our routine. I know and he knows that in the end, I'll tell him he's a handsome boy, pat him and give him a cookie.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Big Horse Episode I

Rocket got his own blog so in all fairness, I suppose I ought to devote one to The Big Horse. The Big Horse, Raffles, is not really all that big but he thinks he is. At 16.2 he's on the smallish end of the Warmblood scale but if machismo entered into it, he'd be off the chart. Raffles, Raphael, is a Swedish Warmblood who is actually branded as such, though you can only see the mark in the Spring and Fall as he starts shedding. It's as if the Swedish Warmblood society didn't want to wholly admit he was one of them. Not that I would blame them. He's a dunderhead. A damn fool. But also, gorgeous, athletic and my pal.

Raffles was sent to me sight unseen. He was a donated school horse to my alma-mater and he was geting the pink slip. The head of the program called me and asked if I'd like to take him in. He'd been on stall rest for a year after a suspensory ligament injury and in the meantime, they'd received more appropriate horses for lessons. She told me he was black, that he had funny colored eyes and that he was a "10" mover. "Sure", I said, "Send him up." It wasn't until after I'd agreed that I found out he also had a habit of putting riders in the rafters.

The first impression I had of him was that he wasn't black but he did have funny colored eyes - very light almost gold colored. He was dark bay and as I was to find out, like a chameleon, he changes colors during the seasons. In the Summer he is almost buckskin and in the Winter almost black but still a bay. People that have only seen him at horse shows during the Summer, don't even recognize him in the Winter. What is recognizable in any season, is his big trot and his big spook.

I encountered the spook first. After being in his stall for a year (and eating oats because they thought he was allergic to corn) he was a little high strung. To bring him back to condition, I had to begin with hand-walking. Hand-walking that horse was like walking with a keg of dynamite over hot coals. Once, I sneezed during a walk and he went straight up in the air doing his best Black Stallion impression. He got away from me once, during a walk, when he spooked and then dragged me through the mud like I was water skiing until I fell and he sprinted back to the barn. After that, I thought it would be better if we hand-walked in the arena. With a chain over his nose. And a second leader. Even then, if a leaf crinkled - he'd snort and leap.

Eventually, we both survived hand-walking and progressed to light riding. I had been riding Rocket who I was so in tune with that I could just think about what I wanted to do and he'd offer. Riding Raffles for the first time, I thought " This is like going from driving a Ferrari to driving a box of rocks." He was stiff and clunky and much broader than Rocket. This was going to take some getting used to. And it's apparently going to take more than one post to tell his story. This will be continued...

Oooohhh - a cliffhanger....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Just Say No

Sometimes, when a horse comes in for training with a specific issue and I can help change that, the owner will be pleased and ask me "How did you get him to stop?" My answer is: I told him to stop. I don't know if it's owners not being confident or if they are trying to find a root cause or if they have learned to accept certain behaviors from their horses, but most of the time horses continue with unacceptable behavior because no one tells them they shouldn't.

There are behaviors that stem from a horse's personality that can not be changed. Training can help a horse be a better partner but it can not change a horse's personality. There are exceptions; the horse that is normally mild mannered but has become aggressive due to a fearful owner or horses that have come from abusive situations and have become fearful or withdrawn can be rehabilitated. In general, a horse's personality, that it is born with, is what you have to work with, not try to change.

The most common behavior problem I see with horses that come to my stable, is that the horses aren't aware of boundaries. Either they've never been told or they've been allowed to slip into bad habits with regard to personal space. Fortunately, it's one of the easiest concepts for a horse to accept. As long as the handlers are consistent and fair, that is. Nothing is more confusing for a horse than inconsistency. One horse that comes to mind immediately is Mod. Mod is an enormous gentle giant of a horse but because of her size and gentle nature no one had ever told her she needed to look out for people. She wasn't mean or aggressive or bossy but when she walked somewhere, people got out of her way. In a single lesson, Mod learned that she ought to be more aware of people in her life! When I told her she needed to stop when I did and that she couldn't come within an arm's length of where I was, she said "ok" and accepted that. Whether it was her size that intimidated people or if people just assumed that because she was so big, she couldn't be stopped, Mod had learned she could pretty much go where she wanted and people were little more than speedbumps.

I told Mod, No you can't, and she was okay with that. Horses are like that. They just want someone to be in charge. If the person isn't going to do it, then the horse has to do it. Horses don't understand that sometimes, we want to be in charge and sometimes, they can. That's a disaster recipe. The person has to be in charge 100% of the time that they are in the horse's company or the horse just doesn't accept the leadership. They will not put up with wishy-washiness!

Saying "no" isn't all we have to do, we have to back it up with what that horse should be doing. An example is the horse that keeps moving around at the end of a leadrope when he needs to stand still. It is not good enough to stop him from moving, you have to put him where he is supposed to be. If the horse takes three steps forward and you tell him to stop, he's still accomplished his goal of moving forward. If you tell him no and then put him back where he belongs then he understands he's not supposed to walk forward. Just stopping him says, that's far enough. It doesn't say, stop walking away. If you want him to stop walking away, he's got to be put back where he was, thereby making no progress.

So how many steps does the horse get to take before you tell him no and put him back? Often I will see people letting the horses take a few steps or make a couple of circles around them before they finally say, enough. When I work with horses, I try to tell them no when they start to think about moving. They tell you they're going if you pay attention. They lean. Or they check to see if they can move just one hoof. If that one hoof goes uncontested, they move another one and another.... Before you know it, they've left town.

It takes effort and consistency and that can be tiring or boring but in the long run, it's worth it. Eventually you will rarely have to make a correction because your horse just expects and accepts your leadership. For those horse handlers who feel like they are being to bossy, keep in mind that 23 hours out of the day, your horse can do whatever he wants to and go wherever he wants as fast or as slow as he wants. For one hour a day, in your company, he can be told what to do. I'd be pretty content if I only had to work an hour a day.