Friday, June 19, 2009

Experiments and Thoughts

I have been doing some interesting riding lately. My good gelding Pete and I have been figuring out how to train while living on an arena-less mountain.

I need to keep him tuned and progressing because he is for sale and I owe him landing in a good home.

Since I train cowhorses and he is bred to be one I have been trying to think through ways to progress out in the wild and woolly woods.

Our first bit of training came into play simply because the poor arena baby had never been in the mountains. He was born and bred out in the prairie. He had been out on the roads, across the fields, done a few cattle drives and gathered and sorted them through the chutes, but that was it.

On our first ride he fell off the trail and into a gulch more than once. It took a while before I caught on. Poor Pete has always been taught to continue on a straight line wherever he is pointed, until I signal a change in speed or direction. Because I was simply sitting on him and heading down the trail he kept on his line of travel, even if it meant falling off the trail. Good Boy. Bad Mugwump.

Once I woke up it only took a few more rides before he took responsibility for his feet and stayed on the trail. Since we began trail riding he has learned to go out by himself, cross water and mud and climb over fallen logs. He has gotten used to hikers and dogs, deer and rotten little miniature donkeys.

I have learned he will spook with just a jump if I stay off his face and he'll be tempted to bolt (he hasn't done it, but you know the feeling I'm talking about) if I hang on him.

He is a fun and steady companion. He is learning to step out with his trot and likes to see what's around the next bend.

I have learned to trot a mile or two before I lope because he likes to kick out when I first ask him to transition up.

Pete has learned he really pisses me off when he kicks out. I suspect he finds this highly amusing.

I started to use the trail to sharpen my cues. As we approached a steep descent I began bumping Pete forward with my legs. He would begin to step under himself as we started down the slope. I would hold him for a few steps and then release him.

Pete began to put together the collection with the easier descent and began to frame up and hold it on his own as we went, lightly going to the bit to stabilize himself. Then I started asking him to drive his hind legs under himself as we approached the uphills. He easily came into my hand. I gave him his head sooner so I didn't interfere and he pushed his way up the hills. I was tickled to feel how he drove with his hind instead of pulling himself up with his front.

Much of our trails are on old roads. I began to zig-zag up the roads. I worked on my leg yields and eventually half passed up the roads this way. I would let Pete hesitate at each side. Then I would rock him back and roll him over his hocks before we made our way up the next section of road.

I don't do this stuff every day, usually just when I ride in the evenings after work.

I started working him on the only flat section of road we have. His lateral work was much cleaner, his forward was stronger and he seemed to read me better. It was pretty cool.

I would reward Pete with some relaxed, loose reined wandering in between our sessions.

My thoughts behind why this worked so well revolve around the fact I tried to use each maneuver in a way it made Pete's job easier.

It was easier for him to get down the hills when I helped him collect first. It was the same for going up hill as long as I gave him his head for the ascent. The lateral work made sense to him as we zig-zagged and the roll backs made for an efficient turn. So he wasn't doing this stuff simply because I said. I was showing him something that made his work easier. So he adapted to each new concept much faster

Rope horses, Endurance horses, Hunter Jumpers, Cutters and Versatility Ranch horses come to mind. The horses who compete in these sports understand what their supposed to do and can go out and "getterdone". They seem to be happier in their work and last more years (on the average) than horses in other disciplines.

Now don't get mad at me here. My own discipline is coming into question too. Because the disciplines which cannot possibly make sense to a horse in any way other than "Do it because I say" are Reining, Western Pleasure, Dressage, Hunter Under Saddle, you get my drift.

It seems to me if we could teach our horses to do what we want in a creative way which makes sense to them, they are going to learn faster, be happier and apply themselves better.

So that's what I've been trying to do with Pete. This is an experiment, not something I'm sure about in any way.But it's really working well. I'll explain more this week-end. Stay tuned.


  1. Great post Mugs, I find the point about Pete going straight unless you tell him otherwise interesting. My mare will travel straight as a die in the arena, but as soon as we're in a big open paddock or on a trail, she wobbles and wanders all over the place - she'll turn her head to look at something interesting and pretty soon her whole body is following her face and we're wandering. I've been doing some exercises recommended to me by Warwick Schiller - he said I need to get her in a big open space and let her wander. If she turns left, turn her right and vice versa. The theory is that evantually she'll figure that no matter what she does, it's the wrong thing so she'll just go straight until I tell her otherwise. What are your thoughts on this Mugs?

  2. Sezz - That's a standard western exercise, especially for our reiners and cowhorses, who have to travel dead-straight at high rates of speed on minimal contact. Pete is a shining example of how well it works.
    To be honest, I have come to prefer only bringing my horse back to my intended line. It makes it clear in the horse's mind where I want them to go. I also keep my eyes on my intended destination no matter what the horse does, or how rowdy I get during my correction.

  3. This is a great post. My years of riding have pretty much been around-the-ring endeavors such as saddleseat and hunter pleasure. I find I barely ride anymore because frankly, it's boring. The occasional trail rides were great but few and far between. The beginning of my wake-up was when my paint mare went blind, and the things I did with her to help her learn to cope with blindness really expanded my horsey horizons. I had dabbled in learning NH techniques before that and found some of them intriguing, but of course body language is useless with a blind horse!!!

    So I am still in a bit of limbo, too chicken to finish my blind mare under saddle (though I am tempted), while her yearling filly still has a lot of growing up to do, and my old morgan gelding is leased back out to be the kids teaching machine that he excels at being (at teaching merry-go-round show ring skills, that is). He is too creaky and old for me to re-train him to anything more athletic, at this point, he just needs to maintain a basic level of fitness.

    So I find myself yearning to ride, but completely unmotivated to do more of the same old same old. I think I would really enjoy learning more working-western techniques, but I live in Massachusetts! Can anyone recommend a good working western instructor in my neck of the woods? I want to learn for myself now, and so my filly will not be another arena machine in a few years time!

  4. That sounds fascinating. I'm glad Pete is doing so well. And just being out on the trails and figuring out that basic stuff, how to cross water, logs, not get sideways on steep hills...etc, I think that helps most horses. With the possible exception of those who are so anxious "outside" that they become basket cases. But if you are training a horse for something that won't make much sense to him, and you combine said training with frequent trail rides where the horse gets to use his brain to work out stuff that does make sense to him--how to get from here to there when there are a few big tree limbs in the way, for instance-- I think that helps a lot with his potential frustration with the drilling that he cannot see the point of.

    Oh, and guys, mugwump and I had quite the heated discussion on this topic--we really chewed on it awhile. She came up with some great thoughts and I think it will be fun to hear how these insights are working out in Pete's training. I only wish I could zip to Colorado and buy Pete--he sounds like such a nice horse (like I really need another horse). Though I'm with mugwump--that kicking up when you transition up to the lope pisses me off, too. My Sunny horse will sometimes do this. Like Pete, I think it amuses Sunny to provoke me.

  5. I am soon moving to acreage up a mountain myself and there will not be a flat place for us to work. The things you're doing with Pete are exactly the sort of things I've been subconciously kicking around in my mind to do with Casey.

    Thanks Mugs! Keep us posted on how it's going!

  6. Excellent, thanks Mugs :) I suspect my own eyes wandering all over the shop probably has a lot to do with it, so that's something for me to work on too.

    On a completely unrelated note, my pony gelding is coming home today after having been leased out for the past 6 months. He has never been turned out with my mare, although we did trail ride them together once upon a time, and Blondie lunged at the poor old fella, intent on taking a chuck out of his hide. If they were both young horses, I'd just turn them out in the big paddock and let them sort it out, but Barney is 22 and I'm worried out Blondie running him through a fence or worse. I have one stall in my open front stable (they can sniff etc over the front wall) and no yards. How would you guys handle it? Neither of them are wearing shoes and I'm leaning towards putting Blondie in her stall and letting Barney investigate her over the wall...i'm just afraid she'll get worked up and do damage to herself and her stall...thoughts and suggestions please!

  7. Instead of experiment I see a valid and stimulating training opportunity. In all the horse years under my belt I never owned an arena, so I hauled or boarded or trained at, but my own horses at my place had to ride in the round pen or the pasture or the woods/trails.

    I fully believe in the concept of giving a horse a job, even the old days of cart and wagon and farm horses, they had a job and they knew what it took to get it done. The working/jumping roping etc. horses of today have a similar take on thier jobs. Nothing makes dead and lifeless faster than riding the rail and nit picking the gait of a horse.

    Think how much effort it takes to dive up the interstate, radio on, cruise control on, one limp hand resting on the wheel...... V.S. twisty 2 lane hwy over some mountain pass somewhere.... it take significantly more attention and mind/body control than the interstate, it can be downright exhausting.

    I place strong value in cross training all horses, it stimulates them and forces them to use their bodies efficiently. The body we value and take advantage of to perform a task that as humans we could never accomplish.
    Jogging endlessly around an arena and loping the speed of a inchworm are useless skills for the athletic ability of a horse. I can easily get where I'm going walking myself, faster than the horse at that rate.

    I want versaillity and freshness in my horses, I want them as stable on a trail passing a dead cow as I do on the rail in a pen in some arena.
    I want them handy, stable and responvive either on the rail or the trail, in the cow pen or the local parade.

    Good topic Mugwump.

  8. "Pete has learned he really pisses me off when he kicks out. I suspect he finds this highly amusing"

    lol love it!

    I do think horses are much happer when they have somthing to DO. It takes a special kind of horse to WANT to do Pleasure/HUS/Dressage. Which is kinda why I like having the kids/adults do patterns and showmanship as it gives the rider somthing to fixate on rather than the horses preformance all the time.

    The happest horses I have ever worked with were jumpers. They had a job and they loved it, but they seemed to understand that there had to be some flat work. I remember trying to work a jumper in deep fluffy snow at a walk to just get out of the ring. Well that mare started jumping the drifts that blew accross our path! Why walk when you can jump?

    PS I 'heard' a BNT went though 65 WP 2yo's this spring trying to find a good one.

  9. It's funny, my sport of choice is endurance riding. With my three year old, we worked in the ring for about five rides, then he was taken out on the trails to learn his job. In normal weather, I work one or two days in the ring, and the other two or three days on the trail. Right now I'm refusing to ride because I don't think it's fair to ride when the heat index is over 100 degrees, not to mention the BUGS! They are insane at the moment. But I digress...

    I've met a lot of trail/endurance riders that train completely on the trail, but I don't think they do their horses any more favors than those who strictly arena ride. We have a new mare I'm taking care of right now that has a temper tantrum if you try to ringwork her (and boy does she need ringwork!!!). We spoke to her former owners, and were informed that Walking horses don't DO ringwork, they only work on the trail. She will fight you if you try to circle her at all, she has no concept of bending, or of how to move her shoulders or hind end in anything but a straight line. Honestly, that's not a horse I want to ride.

    I like to put a dressage base on the horse, so when I'm blasting down the single track trail at a canter, all I have to do is shift my weight and my horse bends around all the trees and roots. It's very entertaining to hear the riders behind me hitting the trees and going "ouch! ouch! Darnnit tree!" Yes, I admit to having a sick sense of humor!

    To me, it's not a good horse unless I can trail ride him one day, do a dressage test the next, and go do team penning the third. I really like a more versatile beast I guess.

  10. Good post.

    I think about this when riding but it doesn't always get done. Driving is another thing. Our horses are our business. We drive them for weddings, events, etc. They have a job, to take customers around in the carriage and not act like an ass in the process. They learn to stand still when we ask because if they don't there will be a lot more work ahead of them. They take advantage of that. I guess that is why I get so many compliments on how my horses drive, they all have jobs, not just going out and doing it because.

  11. Nothing is considered more irritating than a ranch horse who will not walk out and in the direction you point them, in a straight line. However, that doesn't mean they are expected to just blindly go wherever they are pointed-they have to know where their feet are and learn how to avoid holes and washouts and follow trails-usually if a cow can get up or down, so can a horse-barring tree branches that allow the cow/horse to pass, but not the rider and to go up and down hills-however you direct them and at the speed you ask them to do it at. Sometimes that comes easily to the horse, sometimes they need lots of miles before they figure it out. Those that don't get it usually end up in an arena. I have one of those myself. A nice paint gelding, that is just miserable to ride in the pasture-he can't walk a straight line and is always gawking off at something in the far distance. That usually causes him to spook at anything that moves or looks different near his front feet. He was given a couple of years and LOTS of miles-checking pastures and moving cows to figure it out. Now I pretty much ride him in the arena and he is really good there. He'll make a good heading horse and possibly even run barrels.

    In the reverse-we had a mare that went to the Congress several times, in Halter and she was also a WP horse(this was back in the 80's when the two COULD still cross-over), in the arena she was bombproof and would attempt anything you asked. The first time she went to pasture was a nightmare. She couldn't walk-she tippytoed and was all over the place. Cross water? Not on your life. Step over a log? Nope. She had no idea of how to go up or down a hill either. She did get better, but never really did turn into anything really enjoyable to ride outside.

    I would say those two have been the extremes I've run across. Most horses do quite well going back and forth. I like the pasture/wide open to create that workmanlike attitude and for conditioning. I like arena work to achieve finesse. The one thing I have noticed is that the older a horse is, the more difficult it is for him to go from arena to open-country riding. However, horses that have been ridden mostly in the wide-open transition easily to arena work.

    Hillwork is especially excellent for horses who don't really like to gather up. Uphill-like you said-can teach them to push and downhill teaches them to break in the loin and use their hindquarters to control themselves. Really useful if you have a horse who likes to stop on his front-end. Once the right muscles get conditioned-they find stopping correctly much easier.

    And like you Mugs-to teach a horse to travel straight, we simply bring them back into the intended line and then let the miles rack up until they figure out it is much easier and conserves energy to just travel in a straight line and at a cadenced speed. I try to let my green/inexperienced horses look "a little", but not enough that they find things to booger at or forget where they are going. The whole point is to keep moving in the direction you want to go. Personally, I think they learn to look, absorb and get over things much easier that way than if you let them stop and look at everything that catches their eye or ride back and forth past something they found scary.

  12. Really good post! I think a lot of people get the first half of "make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy" but it's hard for people to do the second half. It's pretty easy to tell a horse when you don't like what he's doing, but if that's all we do the horse is stuck having to figure out what's right all on its own. I believe that you showed us all how, by your examples, to help the horse learn by giving direction and finding creative ways to make the right thing easy. There are great training opportunities everywhere - I think accomplishing good training in an arena is actually hardest - at least for me!

  13. Brown eyed cowgirls brings up an excellent point.
    It is easier to take a horse who's been ridden out and transition him to an arena than it is to take an arena horse out.
    It's also easier to turn a cutter into a reined cowhorse than it is to turn a reined cowhorse into a cutter.
    Cowgirl Rae rides like I did as a kid. I had to ride to the arenas I frequented. So my horses were broke in the corral, and trained to ride on the trail. I had to get them broke enough to go 2-3 miles just to ride in an arena. So they didn't care.
    Then as an adult I went from riding out to riding in and never thought it would be different, until I had horses who were raised in arenas and I tried to ride out. Wow, what a difference.
    It's the same with people you know. Riders who learn to ride in an arena setting are never as bold when they try to go out on the trail. Riders who first learn to ride out don't think twice about an arena.
    This tells me we all need to ride out more....

  14. I love the idea of doing your arena training out of the arena. I had a really difficult mare who I just couldn't figure out; we started going sorting every other week, and her attitude completely changed when we worked at home! It was like she realized there was a purpose and all the boring stuff became ok.

    Do you have any tips on helping an arena horse acclimate to the wide open? I took her out on her first trail and we did ok, but she really wanted to jig when we were in the back of the group.

  15. Great post, both for the important information (think about the difference in what you are asking between arena and trail) and your wonderful honesty and obvious good sense of humor. :)

  16. “It seems to me if we could teach our horses to do what we want in a creative way which makes sense to them, they are going to learn faster, be happier and apply themselves better.”

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    You mentioned some disciplines that might easier be understood by the horse as meaningful.
    It might be true, but I believe other factors also play a role; how well the horse is suited to do the job, and what kind of setting the work is done in.

    I believe that it is up to us riders to make the tasks interesting to our horses.
    If the horse sees the arena as a place where he is a “good boy”, where the tasks are presented in a clear and understandable way, where he is not expected to perform tasks he mentally/physically is unable to do, and where he is praised when he tries to do the right thing – even if it is not perfect – I believe most horses enjoy their work. No matter what the discipline is.

    And if you throw in some other work to get variation and fun, I believe most horses enjoy their working life.

    A horse that loves the work and trusts its rider will perform with heart, and sometimes exceed his natural abilities. It is up to us to make the horse enjoy the work, and to gain the trust.

    And I agree; we all need to ride out more!

  17. Definitely in dressage. Any ideas on how to help a horse want to do dressage, so-to-speak?

  18. i confess I am just that type of person that does well in an arena or even in a pasture but I loose it when we are on trail. Not being able to circle and having no fences really unnerves me! It is so silly and shows that us people are just the same as are silly arena schooled horses. I love your concepts of training using trail. Any tips on how to lose the fear? I have a 4 year old greenie so anything I feel he picks up. I feel bad exposing him to my nervousness at this point!

  19. The fear issue in trail riding is really interesting, both for horse and rider. I started out on the trails as a teenager, spent my twenties and thirties competing at cutting and team roping, took my forties off to have a baby and am back on the trails in my fifties. I bought a good trail horse, which helps a lot, and I have had many relaxing, delightful days on the trails. I infinitely prefer the trails to the arena. But I still have days when either the horse or I can get anxious (or both of us) and the reason is that the trails are unpredictable. I go out on the same trail I rode peacefully yesterday, and today perhaps, I meet dirt bikes, a deer leaps out of the brush right in front of us, there is a tree down that I have to get around...etc. It is the nature of trail riding. Thus I often feel a little twinge of anxiety as I head out the gate. Will this be a peaceful ride or one I feel lucky to survive unscathed? Its unpredictable. (I did a post in May on Equestrian Ink called "Trail Ride" on this exact issue.) In my view, that's where the fear comes from, even when riding a steady horse. I don't know if this helps much, but I find it helps me to understand what I'm dealing with. I tend to go with my gut these days--if I feel drawn to head out on the trails, I go, if I don't, I ride in the arena. When I find time to ride that is--I'm doing a re-model project and riding has been put on hold overall, more's the pity.

  20. I think Laura is describing exactly why a horse who is comfortble on the trails, or out on the prairie for that matter, will shift easily to arena work.
    The day to day changes out in the world are what get both horse and rider "broke".
    Arena work is internal, thought, repetition, sculpting each move over and over.
    Being out is external, adapting to what the world throws at both of you.

    If I can get my horse to tranition up and down, take the lead I choose, change his lead when I ask, stop, turn correctly, etc. out on the trail than the arena will seem like a piece of cake to both of us.

    I do think I still have to haul out somewhere with an arena at least once a week to work on maneuvers.

    Dressager asks what she should try with her horse, I say start experimenting. Don't ask for too much too soon.

  21. I think the fear of the unknown is what is so daunting...exactly so!

    We have nothing to fear but fear itself :) and horse eating armadillos of course...

  22. Golden--I just got back from a trail ride where I did meet a dirt bike. So yeah, there's something to fear. You can meet unpredictable stuff on the trail that can get you hurt--bad. Its worth considering. Of course, you can get hurt in a car, or riding in an arena, too. I say do what you truly sense you want to do. There is no law that says you have to trail ride or ought to trail ride. If you enjoy arena riding and don't enjoy trail riding, that's Ok, too. Fugly has often said that's how she feels. In my case, I go out on the trail because I truly enjoy it more than the arena and I'm willing to deal with the risk. My steady horse helps minimize that risk a lot. And yes, we survived the dirt bike just fine--I met him in a wide place and Sunny can handle such things. But the fact remains, I could have met him in a narrow place around a blind corner, and no horse is gonna deal with a dirt bike sliding to a stop underneath him, or God forbid, right on him. It is a risk to go out on the trails. And yes, some places forbid dirt bikes...but there's always something. Trail riding involves dealing with the unpredictable natural world. Its either worth it to you or not...and both choices are really fine. Riding around the pasture or around the property on dirt roads is relaxing. You can find fun things for horses in an arena, too. I use to teach the rope horses to jump three foot obstacles. English horses might like to follow a cow. Or there's hitting polo balls (not that I've done this). I just think if you truly are scared to go out on the trail, you can consider other options for giving the horse a break from his routine. These horses are supposed to be fun...not torture (!)

  23. My 4 year old mare kicks out when asked to lope as well. I discovered this weekend though, that she LOVES penning and gymkanna.

    She LOVES speed. When I do arena work, (circles, lateral work etc) she just gets pissy. She LOVES to run,and gets bored really really easy. Its made for an interesting summer trying to keep her happy. She is NOT interested in doing circles.

    I entered her into a gymkanna jsut for fun this Sunday. We did horrible. No turn, blew past things, but you know what - I could tell she LOVED it. She also loves to jump things. She gets animated, ears are forward and I can FEEL the "happiness".

    When we are chasing a cow, I can feel the excitement. So, thats the goal now. I am going to work on barrels and get her pattern correct, and mix is up with jumps, and poles. My girl NEEDS a job and is happiest when she gets to run.

    She runs and bucks in her corral rather then eat.. She has ADHD, so now I know to channel that energy into speed events, and it makes her happy. Just need to perfect them, she has to still learn to rate and turn properly, As well as not overrun the cow.

    Although she is starting to make some moves on the cow ON HER OWN, which shocked me. And you know what? When we are chasing a cow, or going to run a pattern, she doesnt kick out ONCE, she goes in, ears up ready to go!

  24. And this is why so many people consider dressage people to be overly fussy, and that doing dressage is niggly and 'spoils' horses.
    The attitude makes me grind my teeth but they have a point - it's why there are so many resistant, arena sour dressage horses.
    I call it task vs art oriented and I think it's generally harder to bring a horse on in a art oriented sport, because the rider's judgement needs to be finer. In dressage, it's so easy to slip into a 'because I tell you' frame of mind, and it's that that spoils horses. With SJ and eventing and other sports, there's built-in rewards for getting it right - makes it easier to communicate success to your horse.

    Dressager asked how to create a horse who enjoys dressage.
    In a way, mugs has shown you exactly how - with horses who enjoy dressage, they have learnt that your corrections and adjustments are for the purpose of helping them work better. You need to have that attitude in mind all the time, so that the horse can take your riding as help, not punishment.
    The horse needs to trust your hands and legs. And as HorseofCourse says, you need to plan what you're asking for, and to make the arena somewhere where the horse gets lots of praise, and attention.
    Where people often go wrong is to correct too much with green horses. Too much information, conflicting signals, punishment for misunderstandings / wobbles. I actually do a lot less 'riding' with a green horse, and I've said before I like to do a lot of work outdoors, because with an external focus, it's easier for them to learn by default, and apply lessons in a practical fashion.
    I specifically look for the moment that a horse spontaneously offers a half halt, because that tells me that the horse is beginning to understand the work, and may have the temperament to do higher levels.
    Something else that can help if you are not in a position to use hills etc, is to use cones / jump stands / flags etc in your training. They can give the horse a focus similar to that of going down a trail, or getting over the fence does - it becomes a task to complete with a built-in reward of 'completion'. It also helps the rider remember to reward the horse with a moment of release, or a pat, or praise, which is easy to forget if you're simply struggling to master a 15m volte.

    All this aside I also think that there are horses who are not suited to dressage, and no matter how sympathetic you are, and how carefully you build the work, won't enjoy it.
    I think it's because they are not motivated by the rewards it offers, and motivation is one of those things hard wired in the brain. Best simply to accept in that case, and find the horse another job. Or take up a different sport.

    I'm still thinking with interest about the anecdote of Pete going straight unless corrected because I think it points up one of the core differences in the disciplines.