Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stepping Stones II

So here we were, Odin and I, on day two of untying our knots.

It was early, so I could think while I rode. I might share the arena with the resident trainer, or Jay, but, we ride comfortably with each other, share ideas when asked and stay out of each others way. When I got out of the car, I got my friendly nicker from Madonna. Odin was watching me, but silent. When I walked up to his gate he turned his back and walked into to his shed. Where he stuck his head in the corner and presented his butt to me.

All righty then, he wasn't being subtle about how he was feeling. A little rope swinging and a swat on the rear got him to give it up and face the halter, but his tight little jaw and shark eyes let me know he hadn't changed his attitude.

Odin's grand daddy, River, was a big headed, long backed, butt-high, bundle of attitude. He had small, very expressive eyes. When he was mad, which was most of the time, they kind of shriveled up, sunk into his head and turned flat black, a virtual pit of hate. We called them shark eyes.

River's daughter, Loki, had a much sweeter temperament, but inherited his big head and small eye. She had a modified version of the long back, and was butt-high, but balanced it with strong loins, a deep stride and a good neck. She was afraid of cattle, which turned into some great cow work once she understood she could boss them around. She still had her moments, and it was easy to tell when one was coming on, because she turned from a cuddly sweetheart to a tense witch--with the flip of a switch and her daddy's soulless shark eye.

Loki's son, Odin, is prettier and better put together than either mom or granddad, still a little long backed, still a little butt-high, but has an even deeper stride than his mama, is amiable and kind, is loaded with cow, and is going to share the giant slide stop and seamless lead changes of both Loki and River. His big pretty eyes had just withered into hard, black, little marbles. I was Chief Brody, staring straight into the eyes of Jaws. Dang.

First things first, I took him to the round pen and sent him around, watching for an off stride, wringing tail, crooked head, whatever. Everything seemed fine and free moving, except for the rigid glare I was getting.

Next I checked his back, his legs, his poll, loins and neck, nada. I felt around in his mouth, maybe a few points, nothing spectacular though.

I saddled and we headed to the arena. Walked him out, checked my cues and his responses, there was nothing we didn't clear up in a few seconds and Odin relaxed into his usual, striding out, tail swinging to the beat, cheerful self.

I was doing my best not to over think this thing, just trying to feel and absorb what was going on. Trot work went well, he flexed and extended as requested, so maybe we were done with it.

We loped off and BAM, off like a freaking rocket. No buck, just speed and complete, anticipating, stiff-necked resistance to the bit. When I asked him to get his legs under him he stuck his head in the air and scattered.

What the hell? Back into the fence we went. This time around I wasn't as off guard, so I absorbed as much as I could while we duked things out. If I set him up to circle we were OK, he was rougher to the right than the left, but he's a lefty, that was an issue we've been working on since day one.

When I let him go down the rail was when we got in trouble. He would get heavy on the front end, drop his head, extend his neck (peanut roller, anyone?) lay on the bit and take off. On the left lead, he would stop, kind of,  on the right he would speed up as soon as I asked him to gather up. On this day though, I got a lot more try, had a much smaller fight and we were back to communicating in fifteen minutes or so. So I quit and rode him over to the creek so he could splash around for a bit and then put him up

Now was the time to question the kidlet. At first she got extremely defensive, why would I think she would do anything to Odin? I reminded her I was there, when at fourteen, she got busted racing show horses on the back roads with the other barn kids (some of you would call them working students), and even though she's a mature (I swear, I didn't snort) twenty-one now, memories die hard. .

She realized I wasn't mad or accusing, and earnestly told me she hadn't had a problem with him at all and she had only loped in the arena to warm him up, then they had walked the entire time on the trail. I believed her. She is pretty responsible now, at least while horseback.

So I asked her what she thought was going on. We discussed the differences in how we ride, there really aren't many, and started talking about triggers. Was there a trigger she set off, just by handling him a little differently? We didn't find an answer, but it was a good line of thought, so I left it to simmer.

The next day I let Odin work cattle. I don't discipline my horses when they're on cows. I want them to always enjoy it, think independently, and not worry about repercussions. If they misbehave they get taken off the cattle, and we try another day.

He had tried hard the day before and had two tough rides, and I wanted to see if he'd run off with me on the cows. He was very good. But when at his first left turn, we shot straight past our cow. He had been hooked, had just made a lovely right turn and was reading his cow perfectly, all the way up to the left turn.

If a horse doesn't lope well to the right, their weaker turn is to the left, and vice versa. Normally, a horse has a tighter, less giving set of muscles on one side, and looser, stretchier muscles on the other. There are different theories as to why, how the foal is curled in utero, which side the mare prefers to let them nurse on, etc. I don't really care why, I just know it is, and work to stretch the tight side and tighten the loose one as I ride.

The tightness blocks them while loping and stops them from flowing into their turn the opposite way. Odin wasn't flowing, he was bolting in anticipation of his turn.

I stopped him, backed a few steps, turned him, and went back to the cow, letting his eagerness to work draw him back in. We did this a few times until he willingly made his left turn and I put him up.

More simmering.
His mama, Loki, had severe competition anxiety, which got so bad we retired her to saddle horse status. She would fall apart in anticipation of her spins and her turns on the fence. She never had a decent spin either.
Odin had some of the same awkwardness, but not the anxiety.Yet here it was. I'm a better trainer now than I was then and I was determined to do a better job teaching Odin to work with his weak spots.
More simmering.

The next day was another early a.m. ride. Odin and I were doing some tussling, but nothing major, I had spent a good amount of time working his hips, ribs and shoulders at the walk and trot, just limbering and thinking and he was doing OK.

It occurred to me that the kidlet rides with more support on her snaffle bitters than I do. Not heavy handed mind you, but she uses more contact than I do. My next thought was, I had been using hardly any contact on Odin. So there was a possible trigger. Not using any contact at all is a big fat mistake. I used some on Odin, but not enough. He is young and butt high.

 I overcame the same problem with his mother by teaching her to use her bit and my hands for support, so she could drive up and lift her shoulders. At the same time, I screwed up Loki's turns by over riding her. She couldn't pick up speed with me guiding her every step, couldn't create her own style and efficiency, and couldn't learn to balance herself because I was compensating for (and hiding) each wrong move.

Now here I was, going too far the other way, just throwing the poor little sucker out there and leaving him to wallow around on his own.

So was it me? Was I the trigger?

I  went back to walking and trotting Odin around. I would drive him with my legs into the bridle, he moved up, lifting his back and breaking nicely at the poll in a stride or two. He didn't want to carry himself for more than three or four strides, but that's where we're at. We picked up our lope, he would drive up OK in a circle, but I lost him again on the straight away.
Hmm. Back to the circle, had him, straight away, lost him.

I stopped to ruminate and air up my tired little horse. The trainer was in the arena by now and we went to visiting. I told him what was going on. He hadnoticed he got heavy on the long side of the arena and asked if I had considered going to a martingale and just fixing him.

"I'm not saying I won't end up there," I said, "but I'm not in a hurry. If I can figure out what's going on with his feet, the shoulders and head should follow."

What I didn't say was, I don't use martingales, don't believe in them, and felt all that it would do was dump my already heavy horse even further on his front end, and make him break over in the middle of his neck instead of at his poll. I must be mellowing in my old age.

"I'm not a quick study," I said instead, "I'd just end up masking the problem and still never actually figure out what was going on. More loping will help both of us."

"That's probably the best thing, he's pretty off balance."

Oh damn. It hit me. I have a tendency to "help" my horses through their problems. I'll hold them through a wobble, guide them through their weaknesses, offer a crutch through my hands and legs without knowing it. I thought I had quit that particular vice.

1. If I had been holding Odin up while on his right lead with my inside leg ...
2. while leaving his head free...
3. he would begin to fall forward on the straightaway...
4. because I couldn't effectively (or sub-consciously) support him on the inside...

1. Clare wouldn't have supported Odin sub-consciously with her inside leg, because she's not used to riding him...
2.she would have corrected him by lifting him with her inside leg, then driving him into contact with the bit and relaxing once he was upright, offering him self-carriage, but ready to correct him again...
3. because he was new to her and she wouldn't be anticipating his weak spots...

1. Odin was OK through his circles because I was automatically holding him up...
2. Falling forward on the straight away because I wasn't supporting him and Clare had taught him to search for the bit for support...
3. he didn't find it...
4. anticipated a train wreck...


Yesterday's ride: I carefully let Odin make his mistakes, picked him up, drove him to the bit, waited until he re-balanced and let him go again. He's trying hard to sort things out and there was a huge improvement.
He has now learned to evade unpleasantries by hollowing out and bolting so I am firmly, and without mercy, reminding him that all feet must stop moving when I say WHOA, no matter how out of balance he is - even though it's my fault he learned the evasion.

I will continue to let people I trust ride my horses. Some big fat holes in my training appeared because of this incident. If I had stuck with my first reaction, "Stay off my horse!" my weaknesses would have only gotten weaker, our holes deeper, and eventually I would have had a huge mess on my hands.

Odin nickered to me when I drove up.


Half Dozen Farm said...

That last line was golden. :)

I'm glad you thought it through... glad for you, really glad for Odin. He's a lucky horse!

paint_horse_milo said...

I am the same way as you, I help the horse out to much and its something my trainer is always telling me to stop doing. I try so hard to avoid the mistake that I dont allow it to happen and my horse cant learn from it. Most of the time I dont realize I do it. I am still searching for that perfect balance between helping when needed and letting him sort things out on his own. With hands I am working towards the happy medium of not hanging on him, but not completely pitching him away. It sure is hard when you have ridden your horse for years, know his weak spots (and he knows yours), then try and overcome those patterns. I'm glad you figured out what was going on.

mugwump said...

paint_horse_milo - The key is to allow the mistake, correct, release, allow again. the trick is to actually be aware enough to catch yourself.
When I rode multiple horses it was much easier to police myself, now, like you, I know them too well and begin holding as habit...ah well, it would get boring if we didn't keep learning.

KD said...

What a great lesson. I read and reread your discovery/solution. Think I'll read it again, mull it over and try to put into practice.

Stasha said...

I'm with KD - your discovery was absolutely fascinating. It's also interesting that after only one ride with Kidlet and numerous "correction" rides afterwards, he was still seeking that bit support instead of falling back upon the years and habits of his original training. An interesting addition to your "only show him once" experiment.

Question - do you think the small, clear steps you took in the begining have made Odin a better thinker than a horse with more "traditional" training methods?

mugwump said...

Stasha - Very much. When the kidlet picked him up and put him on the bit it made complete sense to him. Letting a but-high horse learn to get some support from the bit gives them the security to reach far enough forward from the back to raise their shoulders.
He would have grabbed it as a logical progression, which is how he processes now because of how I trained him.
I was leaving bringing his head into the mix until we moved on to the hackamore, but was asking for more balance than he could manage without support from the bit.
It's one of the downfalls of not showing and riding on my own, I just flat out didn't think things through.
Good wake up call for me, it's a perfect example of why I never go to a bigger bit or a mechanical device for situations like rushing...or bolting.

mugwump said...

Stasha - I still show him new things in very small, clear steps. he leaps in understanding me are becoming much faster and quicker.
We do have repetition now, but to build muscle memory, not to learn a new step.

CT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CT said...

Another great and educational story - makes me shudder to think what bad habits I have that I'm not aware of though :D

Heidi the Hick said...



How did you check him for soreness, what were you looking for, what kind of reactions did he give you?

Heidi the Hick said...

At what age / stage of training do you introduce contact?

I have had a hell of a hard time getting the concept. I grew up learning that tight reins means stop, and with my green riders I tell them they have to push those reins forward when they cue a horse to move forward. (Beginners tend to clutch the reins all the time.)

It's so important for me to get on my horses and reset them. I don't do it enough. My own sense of feel needs regular tuning up as well. I sometimes wonder though if I ride them too lightly, making them too sensitive, but I want my riders to expect horses to respond to light cues. I don't want anybody yanking and beating on my horses.

So I have a contact & lightness struggle going on.

And I am always aware of that stink eye. Not as harsh as shark eye, but I can see when they are (HE is) irritated.

Talk about feeling every pair of hands!

Fantastic couple of posts here! Thanks!!

mugwump said...

I press along the back, hold the poll and move the nose around, feeling for sticky places, check the legs for swelling, heat, watch them go around and look for short striding, run my finger along the teeth,look for cuts or rough spots on the cheek walls (especially youngsters) but nothing too technical. If I feel or see something off, I'll give it a few days and call the vet.

Heidi the Hick said...

Ok thanks - that's about what I do but I could be more thorough.

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Isn't it wonderful when our horse try to teach us in turn as we teach them!

I don't get "stink eye" but have been wacked by tails when in the saddle, and when I'm not really listening, a nice klompy buck gets my attention (both of mine will do that; not to get me off, but to get me to pay attention).

I was complemented the other day; the ranger at the trails, who sees more variety of horses and riders than I can even imagine, and has seen me from day one with my mare (and held her so I could even mount she was so wild); she said I ride like I think about what the horse is feeling/thinking.

I do have to give those kudos back to you, Mugs - your teaching has really showed me another way to be an equestrian. I'm glad you're back blogging!

Shanster said...

Cool! I'm glad you simmered and found the answer! Nice job for all of you!

Christine said...

Great to read your thoughts through this - this is why I don't train, I don't feel I have the problem solving skills or patience to deal with youngsters and educate them properly.

Then again - every moment with a horse is education/training but I feel I've a lot to learn!

Helen said...

I don't understand why Odin's response was to bolt when he felt the lack of support.
I would have expected him to get hesitant and balky.
Could you explain why you think he thought bolting was the answer?

OldMorgans said...

Thanks for this story. There is much to think upon.

OldMorgans said...

Thanks for this story. There is much to think upon.

Anonymous said...

Oh my word. You just described the same thing I am experiencing, only speeding up on the straight-aways instead of a bolt. I wasn't smart enough to figure out what the problem was. I can't wait to hear how you fix this.

Unknown said...

Other riders can give amazing perspective. Thanks for this.

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