Thursday, September 22, 2011

ABC's Of Training

I love training horses. Not every second of it, but when a horse learns to balance itself and a rider, and its natural beauty is allowed to show, that part is intoxicating. The process of getting there isn't beautiful. It can be downright ugly. Kind of like when I am trying to learn telemarks in my Viennese Waltz. There is tripping, tipping over, cringing, dizziness and all manner of ugliness going on. Then, I get it right and it is fluid and graceful and easy. It should be the same for the horse.

Some training methods are barbaric and demeaning to the horse. Horses have an amazing ability to adapt and learn and the path to getting there should not be riddled with brutality. I can't make a horse do anything, but I can make it possible for him to do something. It is my responsibility to see that the horse is allowed to do things correctly and that I have set him up for doing the right thing. It's never easy. There is a certain type of person that can ride green horses. That person is stubborn.

In order to work through issues of unbalance or resistance when training a horse, I have to be prepared to ride it out. The only way to get from point A to point C is through point B. Point B is like one of those passageways in an Indiana Jones movie with booby traps, pointed sticks, icky bugs and snakes. Knowing that there is treasure on the other side (or that getting to the other side will save my life) creates great determination on my part to stick with it. You can not just go magically from A to C. You just have to ride through.

Working with Nova these past 2 months has made me feel very much like Indiana Jones. So much so, that I may have to get myself a fedora. At first, she had issues with her mouth that made her hysterical whenever any pressure was applied to the bit. After a visit from the equine dentist and a lot of experimenting with bits, she became more comfortable. She still does weird things with her tongue sometimes, but she is very rideable and improving all the time. The sticking point was the canter.

In the canter she would brace her neck against the reins and bit so much that she couldn't turn and couldn't keep her balance. Her naturally arched neck became like a steel rod and the more she pulled on her reins the more she freaked out about the pressure of the bit until she couldn't stand it anymore and would stop and thrash. This part was all witnessed on the longe line because there was no way I was getting on her back when she had an issue like that. I may be stubborn, but I'm not stupid.

Gradually, she gave brief glimpses of understanding that if she relaxed her neck, that everything worked out better. Once I saw that glimmer of hope, I started riding her in the canter. There were still steering issues and trouble with staying upright on turns but the only way for her to learn was to keep plugging away at it. We did little bits of cantering, then back to the trot to re-supple and reaffirm turning. Then tried a little more canter asking for just a hint of give in her iron like neck and jaw. Then back to the walk to relax and work on bending. There started to be moments in the canter when she would let go for a second, or we would turn a corner and I didn't grit my teeth and hold my breathe waiting for her to tip over completely.

Yesterday, Nova cantered circles in both directions with softness in her poll, jaw and neck. She was using her topline to balance instead of hauling herself around by her front legs and the underside of her neck. It was a good canter. Not a medal-winning canter, but a huge milestone for her. Once she trusted me enough to do what I was asking her to do, she actually found it much easier and more comfortable. There was no way to force her to that conclusion. If I had tried to force her she would have continued to battle and eventually hurt herself. Or me.

There were no tie-downs involved. No crank nosebands. I did use side reins, but ones with rubber "donuts" so that there was give to them. I worked with what Nova needed to do and did not ask her to fit into a training schedule that may have worked for other horses. It was rough going for a while and I spent as many hours thinking about what to do with her as actually doing it. When I first watched her cantering on the longe line, I thought, as I do with a lot of horses that come in with unusual issues, "How the heck am I going to fix that? This horse can't canter (stand still, jump, stop, relax....) at all." Then, I am always amazed at what a horse can do with a little guidance, time and patience.

I look at every horse and see its potential. Not every horse is going to go to the Olympics, or even a horse show at all, but in every horse is the potential to be elegant and cooperative. There are horses who, for whatever legitimate physical reason, will never be comfortable with a rider and those horses can not be trained and should not be trained to ride. The majority will be lovely willing partners with the right tack, good health care, the right feed, and training. Try to fix anything with aggression or force and you'll end up like one of those guys at the bottom of the pit impaled on a sharpened stick. No point C for you.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Born To Ride

When did you start riding? It's a question I'm asked often and a question I often ask. The answer, mine anyway, is complicated. Actual riding lessons began when I was 10 years old. Before that, I rode the dog, the ponies at the fair, the neighbors' horse (without permission), my bicycle (which was a horse in my imagination), stick horses and my bouncy horse, horses on guided trail rides, the mechanical horse outside the Kmart that you could ride if you put a quarter in the slot, carousel horses, and I sat on horses as a baby with my Mom when she rode. I once even rode a cow.

I think some people are just born to ride horses. Many, many people love to ride and are good riders, but there are some of us that are just made for it. It's what we live for and think about constantly. Certainly, some of my passion came from my Mom who had horses and rode, and still rides once in a while. With that influence, or maybe genetic material, I had a head start.

Horses were always the one thing I was sure of. Throughout my life, during strife, confusion, uncertainty, the one thing that I was consistently sure of was that I loved horses and that they were the balance for everything. That thriving obsession lost me more than one friend as those friends grew more well-roundedly with mainstream interests. I continued on in my pursuit of all things equine and along the way found friends who shared my interest, or at least put up with it.

My riding is something I have both taken seriously and taken for granted. As I started teaching others, it was frustrating at times when students didn't get it. When they couldn't feel what came so easily to me or when I couldn't put into words how to do something that was a second nature in my world, teaching became exasperating. Oddly enough, it took finding an interest in something non-horsey to put the learning path of others into a new light. It was when I started ballroom dance lessons and struggled with something that I desperately wanted to do, that I discovered an empathy for those learning to ride. My patience returned.

It's not that riding always came easily for me! I struggled heavily, especially through college, but I persevered. Determinedly and doggedly I pursued riding horses. I'm sure there were times when my instructors wished I would pursue something else. Backgammon, perhaps. Or knitting.

In the times when I have had to think about a new career, panic sets in, complete utter choking panic at the thought of not working with horses every day. My horses are parts of me. They are like 1000 pound external vital organs, just more hairy and less squishy.

I do worry about what will happen when I can't ride horses anymore. When I am so feeble and old and decrepit (which could be next week at the rate I'm going) that I can not physically ride horses or care for them anymore, what will I do then? I'll be back where I started, reading horse books, looking at pictures, collecting model horses, but not riding the dog. Or the cow. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.