Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cross Training - With Our Minds Wide Open

I almost, almost, got in a pissing contest with a reader from my last post. Her comments were just enough to put me on the defense. Instead, I thought them through, the same way I would a tough training problem.

Sometimes, a horse will come across as sour, aggressive, or belligerent, simply because it doesn't understand what it is being asked to do. This usually stems from the horse having learned a negative response will help it avoid thinking a problem through.

In a nut shell, by being an asshole, it can stay in it's comfort zone.

While I was training, I learned I could fight with a horse like this, and because I knew more tricks than most horses, could force it to do what I wanted. This worked, but did nothing to improve the horse's outlook, and often ended up with me and my trainee being at odds for the time we were involved with each other.

The other option, which eventually became my standard approach, would be to abandon the specific maneuvers and straighten out the attitude. Once the horse and I were on the same page, we usually got back to training the stuff it was there for, and we would progress rapidly enough to make up for lost time. The bonus was giving the owner a trained horse with a much improved attitude.

The trick was to get the horse to think.

So, that's my goal today, to get some actual thinking going.

I'm a big believer in cross training my horses. It comes from my years with Mort. I had one horse, but I also had a lot of interests.

I started with gymkhanas and speed events. Then, I decided we needed to compete in the "morning events," halter, pleasure, horsemanship, trail and reining. You know, the events with the broke horses.
We dabbled in endurance, dressage and cross country jumping as the years went by.

Mort and I had various levels of success over the years, and in the end, I had a pretty awesome all around horse. He was hot as a pistol until his dying day, but I was extremely aware it was my lack of knowledge that made him that way. He inspired me to keep learning and to really dig deep and train my horses.

The most important thing I did in my quest for learning new things, was to search out an expert in each new endeavor. That wasn't too hard, since I was a broke kid without a trailer, who had trained her horse pretty much on her own. Just about everybody was an expert compared to me.

I was raised in a home where children shut up and listened. Questions needed to be thoroughly thought out and well timed. This approach opened (and still does) all kind of doors. In order to learn by observation instead of conversation, I had to be willing to suspend everything I thought I knew and just absorb the new information without comparison to my past experience.

I would suck up as much information as I could, then do my comparing on my own time. When I came to a dead halt, and couldn't get past a difference between what I knew and what I had just learned, why, there was my question.

My first introduction to dressage was from a young woman who rode and lived in the same neighborhood as my friend Karen. She was in college, I was in high school, her horse looked calm and amazing, my horse was wild and scattered, so she was obviously my next expert.

I rode with her three or four times before I had my first question.

"Why do you keep telling me to keep contact with my legs? When I put my legs on Mort he wants to run, so I ride with them off him."

My expert said, "You want balance between your leg contact and your mouth contact. You should be able to hold him between your legs and your bit. So a little squeeze from your legs and a light hold from your bit would tell him to walk."

I chewed on that one for....oh, I guess I still do. To this day, the word balance is in my head, and hopefully in my seat, hands, and legs -- every ride, every horse, every time.

Her advice wasn't perfect. But it was enough. It gave me a wonderful concept. Balance.

When I started riding endurance, I was too busy fighting with my friend Karen to learn much on my first several NATRC rides. It wasn't until my first 50 miler that I opened my mind instead of my mouth and started learning.

I found out that Mort's energy and trail-eating attitude were not considered hot. It was called forward, and, with some work, even a positive. His long legs, narrow chest, deep girth and slow heartbeat said he was born for endurance, in this case, he was more than a crappy quarter horse.

My rangy horse was an asset in this sport, not an embarrassment, it was wonderful.

He needed to be calmer. My endurance expert talked me into letting him go. I learned the concept of getting off his face.

As a kid, who wanted to do lots of things on the only horse she had, I was gaining lots of ground.

I had a decent background in Monte Foreman's Balanced Ride training. It had given me a guaranteed stop with a touch on Mort's neck.

My bare bones dressage had given me the concept of contact and balance.

Now, I was letting my horse go.

Three seemingly contradicting concepts.

Three thought processes that began to meld into a solid training approach I could call my own.

I didn't question the validity of any of these ideas. Each one had a purpose in each discipline. I didn't know it, but I was morphing into a horse trainer.

I also learned there are different horses that excel in different things.

Becky, my room-mate, freshman year at CSU, owned Arabs. She spent the summer working for a trainer and instead of pay, had received a well-bred yearling. She kept him at a barn in town in exchange for training colts. I had spent the summer working at a gas station and had leased Mort out so I could keep him while I was in school. Being an insecure, bratty and very jealous kid, I teased her unmercifully about her hot A-rabs.

On weekends, she often came home with me to ride. One afternoon we were leading the horses to our tack room (garage). Mort was snorting and playing and banging around as we walked.

"You know," Becky said, "for somebody who hates Arabs, you have the most Arab-y Quarter horse I've ever known."

Mort pulled at my shirt, then charged past, eyes wide, nostrils flared and his tail straight in the air.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Mort hit the end of his lead-rope, flipped around to face me and squealed at my mom's horse, Murray.

Having Mort taught me I could learn anything I wanted. He could excel at some things, and his attitude and build would limit him in others.

Mort was not fast. He was an adequate barrel horse, but never one of the best.

Mort was wicked agile. He could scramble up anything I pointed him at and knock out a reliable 21 second pole pattern, with a few 20 second runs if I stayed the hell out of his way.

Mort was tough. He had strong legs, great feet, unending wind and an amazing extended trot he could hold all day.

Mort was high headed. His neck was long, thin and set too high to ever develop the level head set becoming popular in the show ring. Yes folks, I'm so old I remember when a Quarter Horse could work with his head higher than his withers.

He was built funny, if you were looking for a bull dog Quarter Horse.

He had a beautiful build if you wanted to cover fifty miles in under 8 hours, develop a rudimentary canter pirouette or find out his giant extend trot was considered "floaty" in the right arena.

The canter pirouette? I spent so many years hanging on his face while his hind end tried to run off with me, by the time I understood collection and started to get balance, it was amazing what he could do. Talk about your reverse training.


Here is what I know now. If I ride a certain discipline on a specific breed and I decide to learn something completely new and foreign to my way of thinking, I have learned how to get the most out of the experience. Most of the time I'll end up with some new information I can absorb into that junk closet in my head I call horse knowledge.

I study the new discipline as much as I can before my first lesson. The Internet has made this soooo easy. I can study the build and breed of the horses used in the sport. I can study the riding style and method, at least within my understanding.

Then, I can compare notes. If the horses I'm seeing are more of a rectangle than a square, if their legs are shorter than I'm used to, the heads lower and seem to be built downhill, then obviously there is a reason. That particular build must suit the sport it is used for.

I'll watch videos until my eyes bleed, trying to figure out how that particular form fits the function. Then I'll compare the form to my horse. Will his long legs make it hard to turn like those other horses? How about his headset? Will it slow down his movement? Is my horse agile like these horses are?

It doesn't matter to me if he is as good, I'm learning, not competing. But, seeing conformation differences gives me some intelligent questions to ask my new expert. In order to avoid being an insulting moron and hopefully be invited back, I'll phrase my questions in regards to my own horse.

"Are my horse's long skinny legs going to stop him from getting down in the dirt?"

"Could you explain why I can't get through my turn?"

After I have at least a vague idea of the conformation of the better horses in my sport, I move on to riding style.

Does the rider sit different? I'll watch and try to see why.
I'll do the same things with their hands, use of leg and method of impulsion.
I note the difference and try to figure out why.
If I just don't get it, then I've got another good question.
Again, I usually want to get invited back, so I try to phrase my question without a hidden opinion or judgement.

"When I ride, my horse just follows the trail without me doing anything, so this is hard for me to understand. How come you use your legs to move your horse in the herd?"

(The difference BTW, is the trail pulls the horse along, cutting horses push against the airspace of the cattle)

I already ran through most of the disciplines I played with as a kid. Once I was a pro, I still dabbled in other disciplines. I rode with three different dressage trainers, a reining trainer, a western riding trainer, two western pleasure trainers, a hunt seat trainer, two cutting horse trainers and as many reined cow horse trainers as I could. Each discipline uses different methods, types of horse and philosophies.

While I settled in with the Big K, it didn't stop me from learning from others, applying parts of what I learned to my program and thinking lots of deep thoughts. They all invited me back.

I am also, 100% willing to walk away from a trainer I think is full of shit. I have yet to condemn an entire breed or discipline from a bad experience with one trainer.

OK. I'm done.


Anonymous said...

Then please, find us an upper level COMPETING dressage and event rider that you admire. I'll go farther, since you seem to enjoy picking a fight with me in particular.

Post the video of them doing what they do best, and doing it well.

This won't count for shit if one of your posse have to find it for you.

Leo said...

I usually don't comment, but this time I feel like doing so.

I think people usually consider me weird, they have fairly one track minds. They do dressage, show jumping or cross country. The fact I've moved more towards the western discipline makes them wonder and ask about things. I live in Finland and the western part is very, very small. We're talking like 50 riders that are really active and involved, and around 200 quarter horses. In the whole country.

But the thing is, I like to do everything. Sure, my quarter is "too slow and rooted" to shoot high in dressage, she doesn't have the right jog and lope to do pleasure, her jumping style is... well, we're leave it at funny but she has the heart to make up for it. She was mostly bred for reining, and she can do decently. I have fairly little idea what I'm doing in that department, so you'd think we'd get ourselves a mess.

But I love learning new things, I don't mind that we're not best at anything. I'm sad we're so limited in disciplines out here, I'd love to do it ALL. I also love trying out new horses and new trainers, I love the variety it gives me. Why does this horse react like this, why does that trainer tell me to do it this way.

I'd like to think it gives me a lot of strenght with horses, as I'm not tied to this or that.

The newest thing is working with horses through feeling. Like, not the feel you get through your saddle, but the feelings in your heart. I used to think more straight-forward, no nonsense way. I'm surprised how much I've learned from this too, even though I'm not ready to leave behind my no nonsense attitude fully.

All I can hope is to never stop learning. Also this comment is already way too long.

RHF said...

Anon, get a hobby. Nobody here wants your crap.

mugwump said...

emma- you are a rider after my own heart.

mugwump said...

Anon...what are you talking about? Every comment that seeps from your sticky fingers is rude and argumentative. I don't compete in dressage or eventing. I don't follow, or write about either sport as an authority. I do write about the philosophy of dressage, since I believe it's the foundation of every aspect of horsemanship.
Although you are kind of an idiot, your snotty remarks sometimes spark good conversation in the comments. A few readers seem to hope they can help you actually understand what my posts are about. I however, have given up, so have nothing left except to make fun of you.

Tevis Stories said...

Mugs - In real life I'm not sure if we'd love or hate each other because we're an *awful* lot alike! ;)

Our dialogue yesterday had me thinking/stewing a bit as well. To give you a frame of reference, I'm probably around your "late Mort" stage but with the added benefit of having owned, trained, and ridden many more horses. And I'm 30-something so perhaps a bit more "grounded" than you were at the time you had Mort (sounds like late teens/early 20s?). I have one horse right now, so like Mort, I expect him to do a bit of everything that piques my interest, although I understand he will do some things better than others.

I know my long-legged Arab isn't going to be able to go be competitive on the NCHA circuit (which is a whole tax-bracket 2+ for me to even CONSIDER), but it's fun to work on skills to improve our local team ranch sorting, which we both have fun at. Or to get his body soft, pliant, and every part positional so we can do well at Trail Trials. Or to work on trust building and quietness so I can ride him in native costume in a parade. Or to point him down an endurance trail and let him rip. I'd secretly LOVE to do reined cow horse, but can't commit the time to that endeavor right now as I'm prepping him for his first 100-miler this year.

I've been a good little mugwump for a long time and do the same thing when training/taking a lesson that you do. I'm quiet, respectful, and willing to try the new skill I'm being shown. Then I take it home, chew on it for a bit, maybe try it in our normal day to day, and decide if it's something I'd really like to use in the future or not. :) I've never not been invited back for further lessons and have had a few of the trainers hop up on my self-trained boy and given me compliments on where he's at, but more importantly also help show me what needs work. I love receiving instruction from a variety of trainers and styles, as I think we can garner bits from each (my seat and balance were most improved by a classical dressage instructor, my hand by a reiner).

I think the biggest hot button I pushed was the comment about the spurs. You had mentioned "If you watch a good rider, you will very rarely see a spur actually touch
the horse" and I mentioned what I had been seeing in the cutting pen. I KNOW not all cutters ride like that, but it does seem the trend is going that way. I can see/understand the purpose of it for THOSE horses, it's just not how I want to train MINE. One of the best trainers we've been working the flag with doesn't train like that, but he's 3 hrs drive away. :( Heck, last time we were there I had to cowgirl up and throw out the reins on a horse I was warming up and just let the SOB tear around. NOT my horse and I've only been on him once before. Trainer was like "where's he gonna go?" so I had to find my courage, sit deep, quiet, and let the dude just run it off. Sure didn't want to put a spur in that one right then! LOL He was still so flag fresh that he bolted and bucked when we first put him on it. Brat. ;)

I had to laugh at your "Arab" QH and I have a "QH" Arab. :)

And to Anon - upper level dressage/event rider I most admire - Denny Emerson. Mugs - I really think you'd like him too.

Tevis Stories said...

BTW I'm in that Tevis video you posted on a non-Arab. We got our buckle that year. :D

Unknown said...

I had a long comment all typed out.

Instead I'll just go with...


MichelleL said...

Anon - What RHF said...

Mugs I love reading your stuff. Don't have even a quarter of your life experiences with the horses but I do appreciate your ability to communicate what you are thinking and being able to share that with us.

Unknown said...

Okay, ready to leave my comment now.

Before I started blogging I was one of those people who believed in total separation of disciplines. Not because I knew anything, but just because I could not see the similarities.

I accidentally started following some blogs, for reasons that had nothing to do with training and was really about stringhalt. Then I started reading some of the training stuff that people were writing. I read it because it was interesting, although at first I didn't see how it applied to what I was doing. After all at that time I still wasn't doing much with my horses but riding them down the road and back. AND I still thought I knew how to ride HA!

Of the many very helpful blogs I follow there is one which has been in my top 5 for a long time now. This gal talks specifically about what she does with her horses or about clinics that she goes too. Also about equine medical conditions she deals with in her own horses. I have been following this blog for 2 years now. To this day I cannot tell you what discipline she rides. I suspect it is English, but it might be western, or it might be both. I don't think I have ever seen any pictures of her riding, she just talks about what she does, and occasionally post pictures of her horses. There is so much good stuff going on at her "house" and I am so glad that she does post about what she learns because it helps me learn too.

I do not ride English, I suspect I'd fall off. But someday I intend to try it because I think it will perhaps make me a better rider.

As I work with my horse (the crazy paint- who btw seems to have done a 180 mentally) he still struggles physically with some of the things I would like him to be able to do. He is tight in the grid iron tight.

A barrel racing friend of mine came over and showed me how a lot of trotting over poles and caveletti will help strengthen and stretch those muscles where he is lacking conditioning to be able to do those tasks.

My point? I think if we are closed minded in where we gain our information on how to help our horses, we might be robbing them of the one they they really really need to be successful.

Besides, I need all the help I can get.

Skittle said...

After watching that Tevis video, its nice to see that people who have put countless hours and miles into training their horses for that event still have the same problems with their horses I have with mine, and on the same scale. Makes me feel good about my chances at some day competing at that level with my bullheaded filly.

Unknown said...

Mugs- you are such an interesting person! I never know what will get under your skin and what won't! The nice thing about you getting irritated at someone, however, is that you come back at them with a screaming good post like the last one. I love reading this blog not just because of the fascinating training ideas, or the great stories, but because you are a person who always manages to pique my interest, whether mad sad or just retelling a memory. I'm sure you don't really care one way or another about keeping folks like me entertained, but I glad to have this blog in my bookmarks. It's hard to find a good blog about dogs and horses, two things I love.

shadowlake2005 said...

I love hearing about Mort. I think he and my Woody--the first horse of my adult life--must have been twins somehow separated 2000 miles at birth. If I could write I would have described Woody exactly as you paint Mort, every single physical and mental characteristic (except color, Woody was cream). All the sports you did together, Woody and I did. It's a little spooky, but an excellent feeling to see "our" stories in print. I expect I sound bat**** crazy, but there ya go.

Jan Blawat said...

I'd love to sit and watch all the horses go over Cougar Rock and see if you could predict whether or not they finish the ride by how well you think they tackle that obstacle.

mugwump said...

Jan - , Um, I'd be able to point out the three legged ones, but beyond that, I'd leave it to the riders and judges.

Justaplainsam said...

I agree Mugs. I had a tough horse as a kid that make me look into more events that would keep both of us happy and engaged.

I've learned from great dressage trainers, GP jumpers, BNT WP guys. Everything you learn about a horse, helps you with the next horse no matter what saddle you are riding in.

My current lease horse is a WP reject, but we do 'dressage' every ride, keeps the old man flexible and his mind active.

Doesn't matter what saddle you ride in, as long as you and the horse are engaged with each other.

Anonymous said...

I bet you're not done.

mugwump said...

redhorse - snort

Jane said...

Been catching up. Love this series of posts! Good riding is good riding, period. I go to team roping practice to learn as much as I can by watching and listening. I now own friend's retired rope horse, who is the softest, easiest, and most responsive horse I've ever ridden. Bit contact is as light as holding a sheet of paper. The dressage instructor I work with marvels at his lightness and ability to collect. I wish she'd seen him work. At roping practice I see canter pirouettes to die for, lifted backs, and horses that rate (if I understand that word correctly: expand and come back within the gait?) that are beautiful, soft, and happy. Only time I saw spur contact was when the rider spotted a steer horn way to close to her horse, and needed to save him. Super interesting to me? On a ranch cattle drive, I asked a cowgirl I admired why she was riding in a snaffle, instead of her usual curb. Loved her answer: "because bringing in full grown cattle with calves in a herd can involve trickey situations, and sometimes you need to get ON a horses face NOW if you see something they don't". In a curb this would be rough, in a snaffle, kinder and safer.
Keep saying it! Listen, watch, think good questions, and knock off the One Holy Grail riding method.

Scamp said...

I took a reining lesson on a horse who had been an english school horse for a while now, though in his day he was quite a competitive reiner in our area. He has a bit of lesson-horse sourness, and though he's a favorite he can be hard for the lesson kids to keep moving.

In western tack, this horse just perked right up. What a blast to ride! He was responsive, he knew what to do if I asked right, and if I didn't ask the right way he let me know. I have the hardest time sitting back when making a fairly tight turn at the canter; every time I'd lean forward, he'd drop his shoulder and scoot; if I sat back and stayed out of his way, we took the turn perfectly.

I was told by a few people that tracking to the right, if you didn't keep your outside leg on him he'd switch leads... but I sometimes wasn't on top of it enough to keep him from doing it. Instead, he'd switch; I'd switch him back; he'd switch; I'd switch him back... if I were riding dressage, I think that's called tempe changes? :)

I had so much fun, I'm surprised it's legal. :)

Whywudyabreedit said...

I love the way a good cutting horse does it's job on a loose rein!

Anonymous said...

Mugs, another great post. I envy your childhood, the freedom, education, and maturity gained from your friend Mort. Cross training is a biggie at our little farm also - gets horse and rider thinking, prevents boredom, exercises both muscles and mind.

Anon, go shovel stalls. Very poor form to come to someone else's blog and then try to ordering her about, with parameters for successful completion of your tasks. Rude beyond description, and I am embarrassed for you in a way you probably don't understand.

Amy in Ohio

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