Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Finding Your True Self

I'm beginning to understand just how much I've changed over the years.

It's freaking me out, just a little.

A recent tour of the websites, blogs and pages I'm reading and learning from gave me quite the wake-up call.

My eating habits:

Where I plan on living the rest of my days:

My next horse: 

What I'm doing with my dog:

My next dog, and what we're going o do:

What I thought I wanted:

What I actually day dream about: 

Who I thought I was: 

Who I've become:


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Ol' Yank N' Spur - Part 3

1. The 10-year-old horse and 40-year-old rider came in for training -

This mare never really got on with her owner. Both progressed over the next couple of years, but the mare was forever impatient and cranky as her owner worked her way towards where she wanted to be as a horseman. The mare was eventually sold to a man who rode trails, but didn't feel a need to become one with his horse. Word on the trail was they did just fine.
The interesting side of this was this woman eventually ended up with a solid ranch gelding and a couple of retired youth cow horses. These three horses drank up her affection and enjoyed her approach. They were all very broke and had been trained to pretty high levels - I can guarantee they weren't trained using the holistic, loving, mind meld stuff their owner used. There was a lot of talk on her part about "helping them escape from their mental and physical limitations" etc.
Thing is, the horses she felt safe and finally had success with came from the very backgrounds she felt were cruel.

2. The Big K and Buck - 

This was the result of wanting the performance of a show horse, but disagreeing with the riding method used to keep him up. I have fallen in this trap myself and am still hashing it out. Buck may have had handling in his past that his new owner disagreed with, but when she bought him, he was a horse who only needed minor tuning to have him show ready. Buck could cheat like only an old show horse can, but consistent, correct riding would show his flaws and they were easy fixes that never needed punishment. Letting him meander and choose his own trail, laughing at "quirks" that were in reality bullying on the part of this wise old veteran, all these things created the mess K had to fix.

3. He appeared at he loading ramp, beating an equally famous stallion with a logging chain. The fight and the beating went on for another few minutes until the stallion submitted, head down, quiet, licking and chewing. -

There are expectations at major shows about a horse's behavior and the trainer's way of handling it. This type of outburst is considered a sign of a weak program and extremely unprofessional. There were many long glances exchanged between fellow pro's (out and out gossip is saved for home) and I didn't see a rush of open riders heading to Logging Chains R Us to buy a similar training tool. 

What hit me was watching the horse licking and chewing. It was the same reaction as a horse who has been let rest from round penning, released after correctly executing a new maneuver, standing quiet after getting whacked with a lead rope etc. 
I had been taught that licking and chewing was a sign of comprehension on the part of the horse. I have heard it described as the sign of a happy horse and the sign of a thinking horse. Watching this stallion use the same behavior after submitting to a beating, severe enough to make him so body sore he flinched when touched the entire week, and couldn't lay down in his stall, made me look at it in an entire new way. 
He was not saying, "Wow, I sure feel better now that you've put me in my place."
Nor was he saying, "I guess I'll never pull that stunt again."
He was saying, "Shit, I'm sure glad that's over."
Licking and chewing is nothing more than a response to the release of stress. The rest? I cry bull shit.

4. A young, decently bred horse was bought by an intermediate rider who wanted to raise and train a horse using Natural Horsemanship methods. The plan was to do it without assistance other than local clinics and videos. 

This is a prime example of marketing success and the loss of easy access to training help. The first book I read on this subject, Lyons on Horses, gave me lots of new insights and the concept of training by getting my horse to work with me instead of for me. Years went by and I continued to improve my training methods by studying Ray Hunt, more Lyons, Monty Roberts, etc. I assimilated some stuff and rejected some other stuff. 

The danger I saw then, and is even clearer to me now, was the sales side of these methods. These books, tapes and clinics encouraged the do-it-yourself approach and gave the impression anyone could do it. Round pens popped up on every five acre ranchette in the country and people with no experience at all started buying young horses. There are many, many unstarted 6,7,8,10, 12, 15-year-old horses going through sales and being loaded on trucks to Mexico.

My friend with the 7-year-old is taking him, and her husband's equally not rideable horse, to a pro in March. Both horses will stay in training, with their owners taking lessons, until they are productive members of the equine world. Yes, it was me who nagged them into this decision.

5. A couple of boarders were trying to load an unwilling horse into a trailer. They had a huge crowd of "helpers." The situation was escalating. The horse was rearing, kicking, falling over know, trailer loading nightmares.

I learned a bunch from this one, brief scenario. Obviously, shut up was the biggest, but there was a bigger lesson here.
Horses learn stuff, even when we go about it in a completely dumb-ass fashion. The horse in this case learned it was easier to load than not load and eventually started to load just fine. There are some really nice horses out in the world who were started by complete numbskulls, because horses are kind, forgiving, magical and wonderful. I know this because I was responsible for a few of them back in the day and they came out all right in spite of me.
I remember these women and their little Arab gelding every time I start thinking my way is the only way.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mouthy Monday - Get Offa My Face!

Letting go and trying new things.
Part Two (recent events)

It has been three years since the day I began teaching Andromeda that it was possible to travel slower than a gallop in an arena.  During those few weeks she also learned that circling means to slow down.  This doesn’t mean that she won’t hold speed at a circle when asked, but if she is ignoring my request to slow down while in the arena or a field I can start a circle and she will slow down.  I have found circles and figure-eights to be great methods of directing her energy in a field when all she really wants to do is gallop across the country side.

We have come a long ways.  In the arena she will walk, trot, and canter on cue (ok, some days she still prefers to not walk).  She circles, serpentines, figure-eights, and even jumps when asked. In the arena she is capable of paying attention to my weight and leg cues so that I barely touch the reins to give directions   She is still mentally a high strung Arab, so there are days we have to trot a little longer than others in order to burn energy and relax, but I have a lot of fun riding her.  We still mostly trail ride.  Some days we walk, others we cover ground at a very fast trot.  Some of our best rides are when I allow her to pick the speed of the ride.  The only rule is that I have power of veto.  Sure she is probably capable of tearing down a narrow trail with sharp turns and not fall over, but I have a fear of fast approaching, low hanging branches and of coming around a blind curve and finding an unsuspecting individual on the other side.  If she ever refuses my power of veto the ride is over and she is required to walk home.  But man, when she is really working our rides are pure dreams.  She becomes focused on reading the trail, deciding when it is safe to trot and gallop (she RARELY chooses to walk and thinks the canter is a transition gait).  We meld into a joined unit in which it is impossible to tell who is giving the cues to shift, slow or speed up.  We both respond to the trail’s rocks, twists, turns and hills as a combined unit.  Minimal movement visible from either of us, and yet speed and direction change as needed.  It is an absolutely amazing feeling when we are this well connected on a ride.  It doesn’t happen all the time, we still have the occasional argument and heaven forbid we try to walk across water.  She isn’t afraid of it, she just doesn’t want to.  All in all, we make a good team and I truly enjoy riding her.

One thing that has always bothered me a little is the fact that I ride Andromeda with a tie-down (standing-martingale).  I have it adjusted very loose.  She can even eat grass with it on, but she can’t get her nose up high enough for the bit to be ineffective.  Her previous owner told me that any time she tried riding without it Andromeda would spend the entire ride with her head up and when she spooked her nose would come up high enough that she couldn’t see, causing further panic.  I never took the chance and always rode with the tie down.  The series of postings by mugwump here and on the fugly blog last year got me thinking about maybe taking off both the tie down and her nose band.  At the time it was outside of my comfort zone, but I never stopped thinking about it.  This year I am boarding at a farm next to large number of trails, but they are all on properties owned by people who hunt.  During deer season the trails are off limits except on Sundays, so we have spent the last six weeks riding a lot in the arena…and becoming board.  So, operation “take off noseband and tie down” began.  I increased my bravery by telling myself that A) the only time I have ever come off of her while riding was when a small tree was stuck between my leg and her side…what horse wouldn’t spook over that surprise, B) she is very good at slowing down when we circle, even if I start the circle with limited control, and C) she is short, I am tall, worst case scenario I could always reach up and physically pull her nose back down (I never actually thought this would happen, it just made me feel better thinking I could). 

The day finally came, I was feeling good and the weather was perfect.  I tacked up Andromeda without her noseband and tie-down (oh yeah, and no flash either) and led her to the arena.  I mounted and let her walk off, wondering what disaster was about to happen.  And you know what, nothing happened!  She walked and trotted as if nothing had changed.  We did turns, circles, serpentines, figure-eights, and downward transitions as if nothing had changed.  Then I asked for a canter, and felt an immediate difference.  I could sit her canter!  When reading Mugwump’s stories, particularly the Sonita stories I was always jealous of the ability to canter for extended periods of time.  Every time I read those portions I always thought “not enough Advil in the world for me to do that.”  Andromeda’s canter just wasn’t very comfortable.  It took a lot of effort to actually sit in the saddle without being bounced out and my back would always protest within 5 minutes.  This was one reason why trail rides were mostly “walk, trot, gallop.” Now here I was, sitting still on my little paint-arab cantering around the arena pain free.  It was amazing. I had felt this canter on very rare occasions before, but had no clue how to get it on command. I ended the ride on cloud nine.  I had finally discovered the secret to a relaxed, comfortable canter!

The next ride was on a Sunday and I was ready to take her out on the trail.  The weather was perfect again and I was excited.  I tacked up and headed down the road.  For some reason I choose to turn right down a dirt road towards some nice, wide, well maintained trails.  This may sound like a good idea, but it was my first mistake because she also likes to gallop this area.  We started at a walk, and when she asked to trot I let her.  She traveled nice and easy, looking around perfectly relaxed. As we started to run out of road and head into the woods she picked up a canter and I didn’t stop her (mistake number two).  When we turned left and entered the woods she started to increase speed.  I tugged on the reins and verbally asked her to slow.  She instantly popped up her head and speed off.  The more I asked her to slow down, the harder she protested. Finally she figured out that when her nose was even with her ears, the bit did absolutely nothing.  This all happened in about ten strides.  Three strides later I second guessed our ability to circle in a small clearing (third mistake) and was heading deeper into the forest with no control.  She was making a clear point of saying “hell no, I don’t want to slow down and clearly you can’t do anything about it.”  As I have said before Andromeda is good at following a trail and very good at staying up right.  But I didn’t her ability to see well enough to keep from bashing us into a tree while her nose was even with her ears and all of her energy was focused on ignoring me.  I resorted to doing what I never thought I would actually have to do.  At a choppy, energy filled, tense gallop I held the reins short in one hand, leaned forward, and with my other hand grabbed the bit and pulled her head around and down.  This got her attention.  Once her nose was down I had control again.  She wasn’t happy about me having control again, but I was able to hold her at a tense walk until we reached another clearing.  Then I moved her into a trot.  We circled at a trot, changing direction often and weaving in and out of trees until I felt her begin to relax.  We kept trotting until she was changing direction off of weight and leg aids with the reins as a guide only.    She asked to stop, I told her no.  We kept trotting until I could move her towards home without her speed increasing. Finally I felt my muscles start to tire and my seat start to become sloppy and I asked her to walk.  We walked out of the field and I took her back down the same road she had just pitched her temper tantrum on.  We walked past the spot she asked to canter, the spot she threw her head up, and the spot she took control.  I made her walk quietly all the way back home.  She only threw one minor hissy fit.  Some well-timed zig-zagging and a minor discussion ended our disagreement.  She walked all the way back home.  But my bubble had been burst.  Sure, in hindsight I hadn’t set the ride up as well as I should have, but riding without a tie-down and nose-band clearly wasn’t going to be as easy as it had initially seemed.

A few days later I took her back to the arena without the extra tack.  The well behaved dream horse was still there.  We cantered and cantered and cantered.  We even completed figure-eights at a canter with correct lead changes.  I discovered that when I relaxed into the canter (I hadn’t even realized I had been bracing against it) I could regulate her canter speed with my weight just like I could at a trot.  I once again finished pain free and grinning.

Now there is snow and ice on the ground.  I have lost my nerve.  I don’t want to risk a fight out on the trail while the footing is bad.  The noseband and tie down are back on.  But, I won’t give up.  The arena work has proven she is capable.  I have a few ideas on how to proceed.  Once everything is melted I’ll keep working at it.  She turns 17 this year and she is my forever horse.  We have plenty of time.  Maybe by the time she is 30 we will even be able to walk across water…but that is a whole different story.

Mugs here, net week, I'll come in and give Paintarab a few tools tohelp her out in this quest to get rid of her extra tack. In the mean time, I'm 100% behind keeping the martingale on while out of the arena. Survival first! 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Ol' Yank N' Spur - Part Two

"So, when you see a trainer or horse owner using a method that you find abusive and/or unacceptable, what do you do? I'm asking you personally, Mugs."

"I want to own that stallion who stands in a crowd without lifting a nostril.. but I don't want to put my horses through what it took to get (the majority)of them there. I have ridden some "good" horses but most (not all) had very little personality.. or at least didn't show it.
I want my horses to be rock solid citizens.. but I enjoy it when they are individuals as well.
So, right now, I own some brats with manners. Stuck in the middle..."

These two comments dovetail straight into the crux of what I'm working through here. It makes me happy to see I've got people thinking and wondering like I am.

First, I'll answer the question, and get that out of the way. There is a HUGE difference between abuse and methods I find unacceptable.

Abuse? Starvation, treatment that causes crippling or death, behavior that endangers other horses or people, I call the authorities. That might be the police, a barn manager, the show representative at a horse show, local animal control or a newspaper. I ask what is going to be done and when, then I follow up to see that it happened and what the result was.

I have only been in a situation where I had to physically intervene twice. I was on a walk in a neighborhood I didn't know very well. A group of very young (four or five-years-old and down), very dirty children were torturing a puppy, chained in the middle of a yard, with sharp sticks. Not only were the children jabbing him repeatedly in his belly, but the violence was increasing at an incredible pace. The puppy was screaming,  the children were laughing, then I was shouting at them. There wasn't an adult in sight.
I went in the yard, knocked on the door and waited until a very disheveled, vague woman came to the door. I told her what the kids were doing, she went in the yard and started yelling at the kids. There was no food, shelter or water for the puppy. I left, went home and called our local Humane Society and DHS. The puppy was relinquished, the "daycare" was shut down and the woman and her own children were dealt with by Social Services.
Another time, I stole a dog tied to the side of a trailer on a two-foot chain. He was standing up to his knees in poop. Again, no food, water or shelter and he had body sores from foot to belly. I took him, trained him and a year later found him  home, where he lived happily for the next 12 years.

If I see a horse starving in a field I will watch him. If after 60 days I don't see an improvement I call my brand inspector, who is more than willing to wade into the legalities of letting livestock starve.

Methods I find unacceptable? I only comment if I am asked my opinion, and then only to the person who asks. In the old days, my students and clients heard me loud and clear, because that's what they paid me for. Nowadays, I have to be much more careful. I've made the mistake  of offering my insight in response to behavior or approaches I clearly saw as misguided. They were met with massive resistance and a touch of hostility. So, even though I was being told the story, my input beyond, "Uh huh," was very clearly unwelcome. If I alienate someone, I lose my chance to influence them. So, I don't offer unless specifically asked anymore. I just write.

Which brings me back to my original thoughts. How do we decide what is abuse, what is tough training, what is unacceptable and what, in the long run, might have been OK? I am eternally confused on this one.

Here are some of the scenarios that have made me slow down my conclusions and rethink lots of my former opinions. I'm writing these in no particular sequence.

1. This 10-year-old horse and 40-year-old rider came in for training.
"My horse was abused before I bought her. She is head shy, freaks when she's tied, can't tolerate being brushed, having her ears or poll touched, is terrified of men in baseball caps, ropes and loading in the trailer. She will only walk when I ride her, she rears if  I try to trot."
The owner was brand new to horses. For her first horse experience, she had gone to the local auction and bought two of the most starved, spooked, panicked animals of the day -- neither were ridden into the sale pen. The mare she brought me had had a foal a few months after purchase. She had owned them for a year when I began working with her.
She left the mare, with lots of kisses, tears and fuss. The mare pinned her ears and threatened to bite.
After thirty days the mare was fine.
After 60 days she was great, as far as her crappy conformation would let her be anyway. WTC, calm, safe.
I never needed to do anything beyond my normal training. I treated her like an unbroke youngster, she responded, and there you go. She sucked back one time on the tie rail. I ignored her, she stepped forward and that was the end. She was tied next to the guys while they were drinking beer and playing H.O.R.S.E., er, practicing roping with the plastic cow head stuck in a hay bale. Suddenly, ropes and men were moot.

2. I came into the arena on a colt. The Big K was riding Buck, a teen-aged cow horse K had owned and trained for his wife. It was very clear K was in an absolute fury. Buck had his superiors in both the AQHA and NRCHA, and a AQHA World Championship under his bridle. He had been fat, happy and retired until his new owner, a primary client of K's, had written a check so big they couldn't turn it down.
So, I was taken aback to see K beating the crap out of Buck. He spurred him forward, yanked him into the ground, spun him with a jerk to his heavy bit, whipped him heavily with his romel, you get the picture. The owner stood at the rail, silent, miserable, almost crying. By the time K was done, Buck was trembling, exhausted and white-eyed. He was also upright in the bridle, collected, soft and compliant.
K stepped down, his face red, his eyes cold and snarled at the client. "If you would ride him right I wouldn't have to do this."
He left Buck standing in the middle of the arena and left. His rage was obvious, it took a second before it registered that it was directed at the client.
"That should hold him through the weekend (coming show), then she can go back to loving him until the next time he pisses her off," he said in passing. He didn't come back to work for an hour.

3. A consistent national champion trainer (top five in the country for many years) was unloading horses at an event at about 2 a.m. There was a huge ruckus in the trailer. Those who were awake were immediately drawn to the show. He appeared at he loading ramp, beating an equally famous stallion with a logging chain. The fight and the beating went on for another few minutes until the stallion submitted, head down, quiet, licking and chewing. The horse was heavily blanketed, there would be no marks.
Nothing was said, a few eyebrows were raised, but it all took place at the training barn.
The next day the duo won the whole shebang. The trainer is still a top winner and the stud is sound, retired, loved, and a million dollar sire.

4. A young, decently bred horse was bought by an intermediate rider who wanted to raise and train a horse using Natural Horsemanship methods. The plan was to do it without assistance other than local clinics and videos. Two years later the horse threw the rider into a fence, resulting in some pretty serious injury. All work stopped for another year. I was called in to consult (free mind you, I was retired).
I met an amiable, soft, 16.3 hand 1300 pound spoiled monster. He bumped, nipped, stomped, pawed, shoved....I could go on. He gave his head like a cotton rope, right up to his lock and loaded shoulders and legs.
One 30 minute round pen session told me the horse was kind, biddable, interested and athletic. I evaluated his behavior, watched how the owner handled the horse and said I couldn't help, they needed to invest in a trainer and take as many lessons with said trainer as possible.
Two years later, the horse was 7, still not broke and being put up for sale. You see, he was kicking and injuring people now, and was too dangerous to handle.

5. A couple of boarders were trying to load an unwilling horse into a trailer. They had a huge crowd of "helpers." The situation was escalating. The horse was rearing, kicking, falling over know, trailer loading nightmares.
One of the helpers came up to me and said, "Do you know what to do?"
"Would you go help them?"
I was very hesitant, the actual owners hadn't asked for help, and I said as much.
"Somebody is going to get hurt, please go help them."
I approached the chaos, and offered to help.
The owner spun around, and said, "If I had wanted help I would have asked."
Her clenched fists told me all of her anger, frustration and embarrassment was about to be unloaded on my face. I turned to go, her horse unleashed with a double barreled kick and caught the owner in the kidneys.
The horse was eventually loaded, the owner was OK. The horse also, eventually, learned to load reliably and I was forever blamed for the owner getting kicked.

There you have it. I have left out my opinions then, my opinions now, and the conclusions I came to. I am really interested to read your thoughts and reactions. Next post I'll come in with what I thought then and what I think now. Even if it's the infamous, "I dunno."

Oh yeah,
"I want to own that stallion who stands in a crowd without lifting a nostril.. but I don't want to put my horses through what it took to get (the majority)of them there. I have ridden some good horses that had very little personality.. or at least didn't show it.
I want my horses to be rock solid citizens.. but I enjoy it when they are individuals as well.
So, right now, I own some brats with manners. Still a mugwump..."

I changed this comment just enough to make it mine. Of course, I have a feeling my idea of manners might be a little different than the original author's.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ol' Yank N' Spur - Part One

Tally's story has plunked me smack into a "True Confessions" mode, like it or not. It has made me reflective and really placing the bits and pieces of what trainers do, what works and doesn't work, and how it all shakes down for the horses so firmly clamped between leg and hand.

When I left horse training I was fed up. I was tired of people, not horses. Horses still held an endless fascination for me, a never ending opportunity to learn, and a way to be immersed in a field where I felt competent and had value. I loved entering their minds, becoming a permanent part of who they were and what they became. I was addicted to the puzzle of what makes a horse tick. My innermost sense of self was gratified and proud as I learned to teach them and become their friend at the same time.

The people? Not so much. Not everyone, I made some amazing friends during my years as a trainer, from the trainers I worked with and for, to many of my clients, but the crap definitely outweighed the shinola.

I lived in a world of conundrums. I witnessed, envied and strove to achieve amazing and complex levels of horsemanship I didn't know was possible. I also watched horses subjected to practices as routine daily life that I thought were incredibly cruel.

Because I wanted to learn, and because I didn't trust my own knowledge, experience or perceptions, I developed the habit of shutting up, sorting things out and watching the results of the world around me.
I asked questions, but carefully.

"How does that get up work?"

This was a standard question for me, it gave me an explanation for:
 a. German Martingale/draw reins/poll pressure cable tie-downs
 b. Chin strap on a ring snaffle
 c. Shoofly tassels
 d. McCarty, mecate reins
 e. Tying a pleasure horse's head up in his stall for hours before a class.
 f. Tying a three-year-old colts head to a hock hobble for hours.
 g. bits made from bicycle chain

You get my drift. I would get my answer, think about it, often times try it and just as often, decide, no effing way.

The answers, in case you're wondering, were:
a.  Restrain, control or force placement
b. stop the bit from getting pulled through the horse's mouth
c. swing around and keep the flies off
d. have the security of a single roping type rein and still have the convenience of a lead rope/horse whapper
e. make the horse too tired to raise his head above the withers
f. "He won't give his rib that direction."
g. when worn for 24 hours before a show, it softens the mouth of a snaffle bitter -- without leaving marks -- that isn't responding to the bit

These are just examples, I watched, listened and waded through lots of this stuff.

I started to think about ways to work my way around methods that seemed crazy cruel to me. How can I get a rib moved over by teaching, what does it take to get a horse to give the correct head position voluntarily?

I wouldn't announce my intention, or denounce the person or persons using the techniques that were freaking me out, I would simply try to find another way. While I was taking lessons from one barn and working at another it was easy. I just took the concept given to me home, worked out another solution that I could live with and went back when I thought I had it.

Have you guessed that in the real world I'm not big on confrontation? That's me all over. The methods I was watching were done by people I respected, people I wanted to learn from. None of them were barbarians, or sadists, although I met a few, and probably a psychopath or two. I have long held that sociopaths are drawn to the horse world because horses don't tell tales and it's filled with people who will close their eyes as long as they get results. I didn't work for those folks, but I met sure as hell met them along the way.

The thing is, these horses were trained so far beyond my capabilities I couldn't fathom it. Their lives were not ones of daily horror. They were not dripping with sores, terrified of people, dangerous from fear, or unwilling to try their hearts out for their people. Their manners were incredible. Stallions stood net to mares in a crowded arena without so much as an eye roll. Accidents happened, but I rarely saw a horse kick, bite, lean, refuse or bolt.

Many of them seemed depressed or shut down. I wanted to know exactly why. Was it the training? Life in a show barn? Were they all just exhausted?

I wanted, not to simply ride horses like this, but have the knowledge to train them too. I wanted to know if I could succeed with fair, kind training methods. I wanted to understand what was truly fair and what wasn't. I didn't know a single, solitary, loudly opinionated, self-appointed horse advocate that could ride at this level, train at this level, or understand what makes a horse tick like the professionals in this world. So I stayed quiet, watched, waited, tried to decipher what was right and what was wrong and did my damnedest to become competitive at the same time.

To this day, I haven't decided if I was right or wrong in what I did. I did, however, absorb and learn a lot, so that's what I live with. Sharing it can be rough sometimes, it certainly opens me up to criticism, and I still find myself questioning the right and wrong of how horses are trained.

I'll have more on this tomorrow. Just talking about it makes me want to go ride.

Here you go Evensong

It can happen, believe me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mouthy Monday - Get Out of My Face!

PaintArab sent me a two-parter... See? I'm not the only one who's fond of cliff hangers.

I can't even remember throwing out this challenge over here on Planet Mugs. I definitely remember tossing it out while I was doing research on troll bile over at that abyss of perdition, FHOTD. It  was my response to the screams of righteous indignation  I received when I wrote I hate martingales and cavessons. I asked the bitches, lunatics, harpies, commenters, who actually rode horses, to try taking time off from correcting my grammar, and ride without head restraints on their horses. 

I do know I firmly believe the way to find a horses natural head set, begin true collection, and get them to get off the bit is to let them go. If I learned anything from Mort, Sonita and the Big K, the only way to slow down a chargy horse is to get off the face, let go, and figure out how to slow down without using the reins. The best way to create one is to hang on. 

PaintArab sent a story along about trying out some of the things she's read around here. I love, love love hearing from people who actually try what I write...especially when it works.

Letting go and trying new things.

Part One
 (written about three years ago)

I did it, and it worked!! I really didn’t think it would, but I tried anyway and it actually worked!!

But first, some background.  Three years ago I considered myself an intermediate rider.  After being given my own  horse,  I consider myself a very good intermediate rider.  I first learned how to ride on big warmbloods and thoroughbreds at a respectable hunter/jumper barn.  I competed in IHSA all through college.  Basically, I can stay on a horse.  I, however, know nothing about training (at least not much).  I was given my very first horse two years ago, but I had been riding her for a year beforehand.  She is the most athletic horse I have ever been on, I just need to figure out how to use it constructively.  Her breeding is completely unknown (she came from a rescue), but she is clearly half Arab and half paint and she comes with all of the Arab stereotypes.  She can teleport 20feet sideways when she spooks, she can go and go and go without stopping until long after I am completely warn out.  She is also FAST and surefooted.   We can travel in and out of deep sand at a full out run without ever skipping a beat.  If there are objects in our way while at a run I simply have to check her with the bit so I know she sees it, then let go and she will sail right over it.  The problem….she can be very, very heavy on the bit while trail riding and she can’t do squat in an arena. 

 For three years I have tried on and off to work with her in the arena and I cannot get her to collect a single gate.  When we canter circles she will either fall in, or out, and is rarely comfortable.  At a trot she will only be slow and collected after we fight a bit. Even then she arches her neck, holds it in place, pins her ears and makes sure I know that she is not doing it because she wants to, but because she is being given no other choice.  I know she is capable of much more because on the trail we have had many moments of wonderful gates.  However, even on the trails she goes in and out of phases (usually a few months at a time) in which she will pick fights with me and start hanging off of the bit.  The only way I can keep her from getting the bit is to do very rapid “check and releases.”  Any time I pull on the reins I have to release as fast as possible so she doesn’t have time to resist.  These arguments will always lead to me gaining control, but I have never been happy with this option and know that fights shouldn’t be necessary.  

Two weeks ago I began reading the Mugwump Chronicles.  I LOVE the writing style and the training tips.  I was intrigued about Mugwump’s methods for dealing with horses who pull too much or aren’t as stable as they should be on there feet.  The idea of dropping the reins and letting them go seemed like it would work…on any horse but mine.  I didn’t think it could possibly ever work for my horse.  My horse thinks running is a reward.  She LOVES running flat out.  If she sees an open stretch of sand or road in front of her she begs and begs to be allowed to run.  It’s her addiction.  She looks and feels so happy while she is running.   After she is done her body is relaxed and her ears are forward.  When out on the trail she is convinced she can run on anything.  Rocks and brush don’t slow her down.  I have to make the decision to slow down when the footing gets rough, she won’t - she will just keep on running (and NEVER fall).   As I said before, she is also an Arab.  She needs to be in endurance competitions.  Even in the arena I didn’t think it would be possible for her to ever slow down before I was completely exhausted.  One trail ride in particular stands out in my mind. She simply wanted to go, go, go.  I set the rules that she could go, but only at a trot and she couldn’t stop until she settled down and relaxed.  It took three miles of fast trotting through deep sand before she would relax.  She then walked half a mile and was ready to try again.  If I dropped the reins, why would she ever stop on her own without me demanding it?  However, after our disastrous ride last weekend (we had many, many arguments) I decided I was willing to try anything. And so I took Mugwump up on her challenge to drop the reins and let my horse figure it out. 

I set up a few rules for myself.  1. I would never touch the bit except for steering and 2. we would only do this in the arena (because she doesn’t see objects, rocks, or brush as any reason to slow down and I’m too worried about her eventually hurting herself).  This morning I went out early before anyone else would be at the barn.  I thought it would be a good idea to put down trotting poles (I spaced them about 6 feet apart) in hopes that they would force her to slow down in order to navigate over them.  Here is what I envisioned in my head: Once we were in the arena she would start at a walk, feel no resistance, then start to trot.  Again, she would feel no resistance and start to canter.  When she still didn’t feel resistance she would probably break into a hand gallop.  I also envisioned her slowing down every time we went over the poles.  I was also prepared to gallop around for 20-30 minutes before she slowed down.  The complete opposite of everything I envisioned happened.

We entered the arena, turned around, shut the gate.  We turned back around and I dropped the reins.  She TOOK OFF!!!  There was no build up, she went from zero to “oh hell” in two seconds.  Those “trotting” poles I mentioned….not working in the least.  She took one quarter second look at them, paused another quarter of a second, then realized that if she opened up her stride she could clear two poles at a time and keep on running.  After the first two laps she started digging in and gaining speed.  I realized that the rules had to change.  I am used to riding her flat out at top speeds…in straight open spaces.  Our arena however is TINY.  It is about 100 feet by 130 feet.  I might be a good rider, but I ride in an English saddle.  I am a firm believer that anything a western rider can do in a western saddle (except roping, the horn is useful then) can be done in an English saddle…however, I have never actually tried riding a horse at these speeds in such small areas.  I was struggling to stay on when she took turns or leaped sideways around the orange cones I had put up as “corner markers.”  So, the rules had to change.  

I ride in a split phellum bit.  The main rein acts like any other D-ring snaffle bit, the second rein activates the curb chain.  I still vowed to never touch the curb rein,” but I HAD to touch the bit.  Not much, just enough to keep her from trying to find out how fast she could go in the arena.  Around and around we went.  I don’t know what was more amazing, that I stayed on (there was LOTS of grabbing of the mane) or that she never ever lost her balance no matter where I was (there were plenty of moments in the beginning where I was balanced on her neck or suspended in the air next to her).  After the first five minutes, I finally found my balance (or at least more of it). The initial shock began to wear off, and I began to think.  Clearly all of my ideas to slow her down were never going to work.  That was the moment when my brain finally remembered the other part of my job (the part Mugwump emphasizes the most)…steering.  SO, I began to steer.  There were some hairy turns, moments where I was wondering if she should be a cow horse (except that she is scared of cows) or a barrel horse.  But you know what….it started working!!!!  She started slowing down.  After the first “oh hell” ten minutes, she actually began to respond and slow down.  We proceeded through a nice hand gallop speed and then down to fast canter.  I determined that, at these still reasonably quick speeds, circles weren’t going to work.  She would simply make them as big as necessary to maintain her desired speed.  SO, I began to figure eight across the short width of the arena (100feet).  It worked!!!  She continued to slow down and then it happened....she began to give me super comfy collected gates.  We began to trot and canter through circles, turns, figure eights, over the poles…all with her head down, her body relaxed, her ears forward…and only the most subtle of steering ques from me.  She was doing everything I wanted and I was just barely touching her.  We continued trotting for ten minutes.  Every time she broke into a canter I would say the words “trooot, slooow” and sit deep in my seat, then we would circle.  We reached a point where only half a circle was needed to slow down.  I was ECSTATIC.  For the last 9 years she has always told her previous owner and me that turns/circles meant go faster.  Now, all of a sudden, she knew they meant go slower.  

I have been riding this horse for three years.  Every few months I would try tackling the arena and never got anywhere.  In three years I have NEVER had a relaxed, comfortable, collected canter circle in the arena.  In three years I have NEVER had a relaxed, head down, ears forward, super comfortable trot in the arena.  All of this I was able to accomplish within 25minutes by just letting go.

I also learned something…my horse is even more athletic than I had ever imagined.  I have never been on a horse making turns and circles that fast (remember, I learned to ride on hunters, not western cow horses).  I learned that she can do the most amazing flying lead changes.  Sometime after the “oh hell” moments, but before we had reached a trot, a friend of mine showed up and started watching.  After a series of quick turns she commented that she couldn’t see my horse making lead changes, but she was always on the correct lead.  I hadn’t felt any lead changes (I was just holding on and steering), so I started to pay attention.  Sure enough, on every turn she would time her lead change for the exact right moment and I could barely feel it.  My friend is now jealous; she thought for sure I was telling my horse when to do the changes because they were so perfect.  In reality, we had never progressed far enough in our arena work to even begin teaching her the cues for lead changes.  She was doing everything on her own

When it was all over my cheeks were steaming, my lungs were screaming, and my abs were burning.  But, it was all worth it. In 25minutes I had accomplished the impossible and now my horse was actually standing still (something else she has NEVER done before).  We finished up with a nice walking trail ride (she is an Arab, she may be out of breath and a little out of shape, but she was far from tired).

I did it, and it worked.  I really didn’t think it would, but I tried it anyway, and it actually worked.

Friday, October 11, 2013

My Mother is My Father's Grandma

My, but I've been chatty. Please remember, for every successful post there is another failed attempt on finishing this week's food column.

I have been reading a very educational, fun, thought provoking blog lately, Terrierman's Daily Dose One of you turned me on to this blog, and while I'm thanking you mightily, I also hate you, just a little.

He has already worked through, studied, researched and written about many of the things I've been just starting to puzzle out. He is thoughtful, opinionated, published, uses bigger words and has better sentence structure than I do.

Being the housebound, OCD lunatic I've become, I can't be happy thinking, Oh, well, if Terrierman said it and it's a line of thought I've been considering, it must be right. Not me, I have to check his resources, read his references, read counter arguments and then try to think my own thoughts. So no, I won't become a Terrierman parrot, I promise, but he is fast becoming a reference I trust, so you'll be seeing his name here and there.

Where he hooked me was when I read his hard look at the AKC and the destruction of dog breeds. My idle thoughts that led me to his posts on the subject was pretty simple. I read an article about several AKC breeds of dogs which were going extinct. The Old English Sheepdog, English Setter, Dandie Dinmont Terrier, Otter Hound and Lancashire Heeler were all on the list.

Can you call the disappearance of a man-made creation, that has only been around for the last 140 years or so extinct? Wikipedia defines extinction as:  In biology and ecologyextinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms (taxon), normally a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point.

The definition of species: a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. The species is the principal natural taxonomic unit, ranking below a genus and denoted by a Latin binomial, e.g., Homo sapiens

The definition of breed: a stock of animals or plants within a species having a distinctive appearance and typically having been developed by deliberate selection.

When I thought a little more and did some VERY casual research, I wondered, if a breed can actually become extinct, when does it become official? 
Here's an Old English Sheepdog in 1860

So, was the Old English Sheepdog extinct here? This is a show dog in 1937.
 It's certainly not the same dog as the one pictured above.

It definitely has to be extinct here, because at this point,
I'm not sure it's still a dog.

Then I thought I might be making things too complicated. Dogs were bred to suit human fancy. So, if we needed a gun dog, a herding dog, whatever, we bred them, right? At least it went that way until we started breeding dogs AKC style, based solely on looks and tossed out any concerns about health, ability or temperament.

I found some drawbacks to the breeds that were on the AKC endangered list.

On Old English Sheepdogs :  They are really big dogs...80 pound average. Inbreeding has made it difficult to find dogs that aren't high strung, nervous and sometimes aggresive. These great big dogs are rowdy, think jumping on Grandma, herding the kids, dragging you down the street...they are notoriously strong willed, messy, hairy, slobbery aaannnnd very, very farty.

Then there's the health issues:  deafness, cataract, gastric torsion, otitis externa, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), cerebellar ataxia, retinal detachment and hypothyroidism, or major health issues like canine hip dysplasia

English Setters:

Think, high, nervous energy. Although these dogs are gentle and sweet, all that can go straight to hell if you aren't going to get them out where they can run. They are known for separation anxiety too, so keeping the in a crate for 10 hours aday is a very, very bad plan.Stubbornness, hard to housebreak, heavy shedding and silky, easily matted hair round ou the list.

Health Issues: congenital deafness, autoimmune thyroiditis, canine hypothyroidism, hip and elbow dysplasia, allergies, and cancer.

Dandie Dinmont Terriers:

These cute little dogs look like they were made for Aunt Edna's lap don't they? If your auntie is loaded...they carry an average price tag of $800 to $2500 dollars, yes, that's per puppy, and really gnarly, then maybe. The cost isn't because they are better, it's because there aren't very many of them. Think teeny, tiny gene pool. Dandies are known to be self-willed and independent, aggressive towards other animals, and not prone to use an indoor voice. But they have really cute haircuts, I'll give them that.

Health issues: Glaucoma, cataracts and corneal ulcers. Intervertebral disk disease, hip dysplasia, and luxating patella (loose knees). Luxating shoulder can also occur. Allergies, hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease and lymphosarcoma.

So. My next thought was, maybe these dogs don't need to be saved, resurrected, considered endangered, or anything else. Maybe, they are fading away because there is no longer a consumer demand. Since the breeds themselves were created for our personal pleasure, why shouldn't they fade away as they become obsolete? It's not like we'd be eliminating dogs, just no longer breeding the ones nobody wants. 

Who really needs a giant, hairy sheep dog? Bird dogs are becoming harder to find, because there aren't as many people using them. It's interesting to think about what kind of breeds will develop in the future. You know, after Armageddon, when we need our dogs to start working for a living again.  

If dogs were bred like horses, developed because of what they do instead of what they look like...well, except for color, we do like to breed for color.

That's not working out either. 

Take quarter horses for example. The hottest bloodlines come from the winners in the show pen, right? The electric flash of a top cutting horse, the slides and spins of a top reining horse, the elegance of a top pleasure horse. OK. Stop laughing, I mean it.

Equine breeders may be breeding for ability, but what about soundness, longevity, temperament, general health?  

Let's think about HERDA, HYPP, thin soles, bad guts, Overo Lethal White Syndrome...

Where did my train of thought take me? Other than to Terrierman, they took me down a pretty broad path. I'm starting to think over the last couple hundred years, breeding animals is more about playing God than continuing on with the animals that work best with us. We're just not that good at it.

My other problem is, mugwump that I am, I just love my inbred cow horse. I love who she is and what she can do. I'll never forget telling the Big K - " Training this filly has made me realize that up until now, I've been training chihuahua's to be sled dogs and I finally got me a husky."

Plus, while researching the rare breed list, I came across this little guy, the Lancashire heeler How cool is he? Everything I read says this is my kind of dog and if I ever get a chance, I'll be getting one.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

New Horse Owners, Boarding Barns and Doing the Right Thing

The comments following the latest Tally post brought up some great issues -- some very near and dear to my heart.

While dealing with the result of poor Tim's attempts at independent horsemanship,  riding a horse he owned, but really wasn't ready for, I was getting a crash course in responsible horse training and the human condition.

Here's the thing. The entire situation was my fault. Not Tim's, not the well intentioned, fairly dim advice he was getting drowned with, not the NH wannabe trainers that frequented the barn and were dying to get their hands on Tally. It was mine.

I certainly didn't understand that at the time. There are many reasons this story is tough for me, the biggest being having to face and accept my responsibility. When I took Tally on as a project, I was in the most dangerous place a horse trainer can be. I had just enough knowledge to cause a whole lot of trouble and was still naive enough to not understand the potential repercussions.

Normally, I try to get my philosophy across through my stories. This time, I'm going to break protocol and spell a few things out. I didn't sort this stuff out until many years later and I have reached a limit in my story telling ability. I can't figure out how to get my message out without getting all boring and lecture-y in the telling. Plus, these are concerns I really want to share, without making you guys figure them out, right or wrong, while I sit back and watch (like I usually do). So, I'll do it now, and then get back to the telling.

These are the core beliefs I held at that time. Some I still adhere to, some I have either let go or dramatically modified.

1. All horses deserve a chance.

2. No horse is too much to rehabilitate.

3. Anybody who wants it bad enough can learn to train a horse.

4. "Feel" can be taught to anyone - because I could see and read a situation, anybody could learn to do the same.

5. Because I was developing an effective training method it was the "right" one for every horse and rider.

6. Any horse can be taught to be at least competent in any situation.

7. ***A horse's affection/behavior on the ground translates to behavior under saddle.***

I never, ever, should have sold Tally to Tim. Instead of listening to him and understanding what he needed, I let him talk me into what he thought he wanted.

Tim was new to horses. He loved the animal, the romance of looking like a cowboy and the challenge. All very good reasons to get into horses. He wanted to get into reining. He was 45 years old, had never ridden, was a well-to-do architect with oodles of discretionary income, and had the time to invest in a life-long dream.

He was at the perfect barn for him. It was filled with people of the same ilk, that mostly rode trails and muddled around with some kind of NH training, and run well by a couple who had been working with this type of rider their entire career.

He needed to be mounted on a solid minded, sound bodied, six to ten-year-old ranch gelding, with enough talent to be shaped into a green rider/rookie reining horse. Tim would have had the joy of learning to ride on a quality horse and I would have gotten a healthy share of that discretionary income by teaching them both the basics of reining. He might (probably would) have become something of a rock star at that barn full of bored wealthy horse owners and I might (probably would) have picked up a bunch more clients to molly coddle their way to reining 101.

Tim had potential, drive, a great work ethic and a gentle, horse magnet soul. Tally saw it and was drawn to it. Tim was flattered by my "wild" mare's attention and fell in love.

If I had understood all of this, I would have given him a firm, "Step away from the rehab mare," and guided him on to the next horse he fell for, out of a group of carefully selected prospects that would take us where we needed to go. He would have fallen just as hard, been happier, and certainly safer, if I had done my job.

But I didn't get it.

The barn full of judgmental critics? Personally, I can hardly point fingers. They watched Tim buy a horse he could only ride under my direction -- and then saw why. To them, it translated to "stupid trainer." C'mon, let's be honest, how many times have we thought it, seen it, said it?

They had horses they could ride. Their horses didn't behave like Tally. They were not experienced in the cow horse world, so they didn't recognize her potential or her talent. They just saw a small, snorty, emotional, spooky,maybe dangerous horse with mutton withers that kept rolling her saddle.

They weren't wrong. Tally was all those things. I truly thought she would be OK, because if she was handled just so, she seemed to work things out. I was sure I could teach anybody what "just so" meant. What I wasn't seeing was reality. Not everybody wants, or should even try, to take on the Tally's of the world. My responsibility as a trainer is to factor in who and what people are. Not to try to mold them into my version of Horaii, but to help them find their own.

In the barn chaff's (boarders) mind, with their input, their trainer, their videos, Tim could have the same thing they did -- nice horses.Which he could have, if I had the sense to mount him on the right-minded horse. He couldn't appreciate Tally's abilities, he certainly couldn't ride her to her potential, and he didn't need to. The people who were being so critical couldn't ride her either, but they didn't know that. None of them had been exposed to a horse like Tally before and there was no earthly reason for them to be. I just didn't understand.

Here's the deal. It wasn't ego that caused this big fat swampy morass of a fubar. It was my insecurity, my lack of confidence, my utter conviction that if I could do it, anybody could. I had so little self esteem it never occurred to me that my knowledge, experience and ability might add up to more than what I could teach through lessons. It was almost the undoing of both Tally and Tim.