Learning together

I had a few firsts in one hit a couple of weeks ago, when our Parelli professional came to visit for a day of lessons.  I haven’t had a lesson with a Parelli instructor before, everything I’ve learned coming from friends, DVDs and the Internet.  It’s also the first time I’ve had a two-hour lesson, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a lesson on “my” horse, rather than a riding school one (in my pre-teen years, I had regular lessons on my loaned pony, or one of the other ponies at the small livery yard we were based at, but the majority of my life has involved riding school ponies and horses).

I spent a few weeks changing my mind about my goal for the lesson, and ultimately reacted to what happened the day previously during the play day, plus what Prince gave me on the day.  Fortunately, he co-operated beautifully and demonstrated a few small issues I’d been struggling to crack, which was very kind of him!  I find that horses often behave well when an instructor is looking, so I was pleased that he obliged in Tracey’s presence, allowing her to see and understand what was happening, and offer a solution.  Becky, 1; Prince, 0.

It was quite a long wait until my lesson – the day was split so that the first two hours were for Prince and his owner to have a lesson along with one of our friends and her young horse.  As Jo is now heavily pregnant, her lesson was split into two hour-long slots with lunch in the middle, and my lesson (with another of our volunteers) was last.  Due to the weather not being brilliant, I unfortunately didn’t get to watch the other lessons quite as intently as I’d have liked, but I also wasn’t too disappointed, as what the others ended up working on turned out to be quite far removed from my own subject matter!

When it was my turn, I had Prince plaited up and ready to go, and we began warming up on the ground.  I’d already given our instructor, Tracey, a quick brief on the issues I was having, and she’d seen Prince perform the day before, so we both knew what we were in for.  I told her that he’d been demonstrating some anxiety about working under saddle recently, and that my biggest struggle when riding is that I can’t get consistency when asking him to move forwards – he’ll do two, three or even four strides of any given gait, then seem to forget what he’s doing or lose confidence and stop or try to turn around.  In addition to all of that, he’s resisting my hand on the ground, tensing through his poll and setting his head against me, which makes everything harder!  Ultimate relaxation is what we want, so we decided we’d see what happened.

Tracey was happy with my usual warm up plan, so I proceeded with my ground work much as normal.  She prescribed a course of “Touch It”, asking me to dot my tack around the paddock and incorporate having Prince touch each item as part of my warm up.  This worked nicely, getting him more relaxed and intrigued by the experience, rather than putting on his, “oh no, here comes the saddle” face.

When it came to my circling game, Prince duly set his poll and began his favourite game of deciding to change the rein all by himself.  Tracey laughed, because Prince was being cheeky, and gave me an idea I kicked myself for not coming up with: make the wrong thing hard.  She said that if Prince wants to go the other way, he can, but he must do so at the next gait up (he normally decides when trotting that he’s had enough of one rein, so if he changes the rein without me asking, I’m to tell him that he can go the other way, but at a canter).  The premise is that the right thing is easy, and that now he’s doing it out of cheekiness rather than lack of confidence, it’s time for me to be more prescriptive and a bit more demanding of him.  So I sent him cantering off, slowed him down again, switched him back to the other rein and let him think about it.  He’s learning that my way is the easy way and his way is the hard way!

I tacked him up, ran through my pre-flight checks and again hit a bump in the road which I was glad Tracey witnessed: when asking Prince to flex laterally from the ground whilst tacked up, he either does it instantly or again sets his poll and jaw – you can see it in the muscles!  I got praise from Tracey for a really nice bit of lateral flexion, but when I released the pressure and asked again, he set his head.  At that point, her advice was not to wait all day – I was to up the phases, and if he really wasn’t listening, ask him to yield his hindquarters too, in order to get him to turn his head.  Once again, making the wrong thing hard.  Another great piece of advice.

Once I mounted up, the real work inevitably began!  Something which I was pleased would be relevant to where Prince and I are at was to undertake a “passenger ride” – the rider puts their reins down and simply asks the horse to keep moving, it’s the horse’s choice where you go.  The aim is to get the horse thinking forwards, rather than waiting for every direction from the rider.  The most difficult thing as an experienced rider is to avoid influencing the horse with shifts in weight, and looking where you’re probably going.  I made the mistake of fixing my gaze on Prince’s poll – I soon got dizzy and learned to look through his ears without directing him.

Prince turned in tight circles at a brisk trot, so I did have to encourage him away from that pattern and ask him for a wider direction.  Then he trotted up and down the fence, trying to be near the spectators, who made it an uncomfortable place for him to be.  Then the most interesting thing happened – he made himself a one-horse demolition derby: there were lots of jump blocks and poles in the middle of the arena, and he went crashing through all of them, trying to ask if I wanted him to somehow attempt the obstacles.  Again, we spent too long here without him getting the point, so I eventually asked him to move away and carry on.  He finally put himself on some larger circles, and I took up the reins to move on to my next exercise.

Tracey asked me to have Prince follow the rail.  I was told that for him to be on two tracks, with his nose in the middle of his chest was the “green zone”, and if his nose wandered or any of his legs dipped inwards, he was in the red zone and I had to correct him, asking him to continue travelling forwards close to the rail.  Off we went at a walk, me correcting his nose occasionally.  Once he appeared relaxed, we moved up to a trot, and after a couple of laps, he blew out, relaxing properly.  At that point, I stopped and praised him, earning me praise from Tracey too.

I changed the rein and repeated the exercise in the opposite direction.  Prince took longer to blow out this time, but once he did, I stopped and praised him again, and that’s where the lesson ended.  The prescription is lots more following of the rail to build his confidence and keep him moving forwards.

As we chatted at the end of the lesson, I admitted to Tracey that with the way Prince behaved in the warm up, setting his jaw and turning around and generally being a pain in the backside, I wouldn’t have got into the saddle if she hadn’t been there – he’s been behaving like this on and off, and has probably learned that this behaviour means I won’t ride.  I never feel that he’s dangerous, but the brief that I’ve always been given by his owner is to put the relationship first, and I still find it hard to judge where the line should be drawn.

Tracey was very positive and encouraging, saying that she thought I was doing a great job and that I’ve done him no harm, that things are happening with him, but he’s a horse who takes a long time to warm up to you.  Her final takeaway for me was to tell me to believe in myself more!  I didn’t realise until she said it how little I do believe, how I keep saying that I’m still new at this stuff and my experience with “young” (Prince is 11, but in ridden terms, he’s only about five) horses is non-existent.  But the reality is that I’ve come a long way, and Prince is progressing (I think I’m learning more than he is at the moment!).

It was a fantastic lesson, and I’m hoping to book a follow-up for the end of the summer.  As we don’t have an arena, I can’t ride over the winter, so it’ll be back to ground work, and limited work at that, as I only have a very small indoor space to work in (I can only have Prince on a 12-foot line, and trot work is minimal due to the surface), so in my next lesson I would like to ride, to see where we’ve got to, but I will also be asking for some ground work ideas for the winter, to keep us entertained!  I can’t quite believe that the summer is disappearing so quickly, but I’m fairly pleased with how it’s going, and am glad to have had this particular experience.

Horse play

Back in the spring, when it was still raining buckets and summer seemed a distant dream, we decided that in addition to the open days, we’d run two play days at the stables.  These kind of events are pretty unique to the natural community, and definitely sound strange when I explain them to non-horse people, but to others they hopefully make a little more sense!

Essentially, they’re like playdates, but without babies and toddlers (children are welcome!) and with horses.  A host will volunteer themselves, round up their toys, create an obstacle course, perhaps throw in a small jumping arena, prepare a few cakes and invite humans and horses over to play.  As with all things natural horsemanship, the only limit is your imagination.  There may be friendly competitive elements, and people and horses of all abilities are welcome.  It’s a chance to meet like-minded people, get new ideas and hang out with some horses.

When we set the dates, Jo decided that she wanted me to feel comfortable to ride Prince if I wanted to.  I had 11 weeks to get ready, at which point I’d sat on him once.  It seemed a tall order.

Once I started working again, the time flew by and the date had suddenly arrived.  I’d ridden Prince only a handful of times with varying degrees of success.  I wasn’t too bothered, as the day after the play day, we had an instructor scheduled to come over and help us out with some lessons (brilliantly, she also came to the play day, off-duty and accompanied by her own green horse, which was great to watch).  So I walked into the play day with little expectation from Prince.  In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the day working or stewarding, rather than playing.

We helped our visitors to settle in, showed them around and left them to play, assisting when they wanted the clear round course changed or offering a score when they wanted to be judged on their abilities with the obstacle course.  We’d managed to come up with some inventive things: we’d built a small ball/sand pit for the horses to explore, created a “log walk” (designed to mimic the conditions you might meet out on a forest trail) and rigged up one of my favourite holiday souvenirs (a sheep bell from Greece) for people to park their horse next to and ring.  It’s all about figuring out what you and your horse can do, whether you do it online, at liberty or ridden.

Having watched our visitors get going, I was starting to itch for a play, so I retrieved Prince.  We got off to a terrible start: I had to walk him through the “warm up” field where some obstacles were laid out, and he took particular exception to an umbrella.  I honestly didn’t think I’d get him past it at first, and once I did, my game plan changed.  I spent some time grooming Prince and plaiting him up (even though I had no intention of riding) before taking him back to avenge the ghost that was the umbrella.

Some snorting ensued, and I almost had a 15hh, 550kg cob jump on top of me (not cool, I told him, as I promptly sent him back out into his own space, to prevent myself from being crushed).  It was Prince’s first experience of a play day too, and I was glad it was on his home turf, though it meant that home had changed significantly with the addition of lots of obstacles and some strange horses.  Fortunately, with a few clever games played, he settled quickly and soon touched the umbrella with his nose!  After he marched confidently through our “car wash” obstacle (which he’s seen and completed before – it’s a plastic frame with strips of fine plastic hanging from it which were blowing in the breeze), I knew he was ready to take on the new obstacles, so off we went to play.

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sand pit: no drama

Prince began to really impress me by staying relaxed and connected – nothing fazed him.  He happily tackled the sand pit (we think most of the horses were fooled into thinking that the balls were apples), successfully negotiated the log walk, weaved in and out of the straw bale squeeze with me stood on top of one (he wiggled all around in every direction I requested), and rang the bell using his nose!

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chilling in the hay

As we were working our way around, my brain was ticking over, and I wondered what would happen if I changed the game slightly… I tacked him up.  We tackled the obstacles from the ground: complete relaxation, no change in approach, no big deal for Prince.  So I fetched my helmet and climbed on.

Under saddle, I met more resistance, but only with open spaces.  If Prince had an obstacle in front of him, we were absolutely fine, and he did me proud.  Walking to and from the arena was different – all jolty stop-start gaits that I’ve experienced my last few rides, and I was glad our instructor was there to see what I meant!

The final challenge I gave Prince was a bit of a laugh – we tackled the clear round.  All of it was small enough to step over, or hop from a standstill.  I wasn’t expecting even a trot out of him, and sure enough he demolished most of it.  However, I did manage to get a trot going at one point, and the little horse surprised me yet again by rewarding me with two proper jumps!  Our friends who were watching cheered as if we’d slid down the Derby Bank and successfully cleared the rails at the bottom, and I suspect the grin on my face told the same story.  Prince and I received a rosette for our efforts, my first since I was a teenager!

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winning!

The day was an enormous boost to my confidence in terms of my relationship with Prince and what we might achieve.  No, we still haven’t been out on a hack (a lack of companion is partly what’s slowing us down there), but he remained calm and did everything I asked of him last weekend.  I really couldn’t have asked for more.  It felt like the holy grail of my horse saying, “the answer is ‘yes’, what was the question?”.

Six weeks until the next play day, and this time, I’ve got aspirations for an actual clear round…

Finding his feet

Prince doesn’t know how many feet he has.  As an inexperienced riding horse, and one who has done a lot of Parelli playing from the ground, but not a lot of real schooling work, he often fails to pick his feet up, particularly at the trot.  As I don’t wish to be put on the floor, I decided this should be something we work on pretty soon.  I’m not planning on competing or doing any dressage with him, but he needs to be able to make his way in any direction I ask him to go without stumbling or tripping.  We know it isn’t a soundness issue, or something which relates to the way his tack fits, it’s definitely a case of not always thinking about where he puts his feet, and not being in self-carriage.

So out came the trotting poles, I sent Prince on a circle and… he flew over them.  I thought it might be beginner’s luck, so I sent him again, and witnessed another great performance.  I decided I’d need evidence in case nobody believed me, so I did a juggling act with a 22-foot line and my phone (and probably over-used my tongue as a result, I sound like I’m nagging in this video!), and asked Prince to approach the poles once more.

As you can see, he does a reasonable job!  The right rein isn’t so fantastic, with him missing the stride into them and clouting the first two as a result, but he made a real effort, so I was proud of him.

Here Prince is two weeks ago figuring out how to pick his feet up:

A week later, with an eye on the fact that our first playday is now less than a month away, I decided it was high time that Prince and I checked out the ten acre field.  The horses live there all winter, but none of them have been there for a couple of months, as they’ve moved into their summer paddocks.  I knew Prince would want the chance to check for dragons before any obstacles are set up or other horses arrive, so I tacked him up on the yard, and with the safety of two companions alongside us, we went to the ten acre for a play.

Sure enough, Prince wasn’t all that relaxed initially – up on his toes as he was in a ten acre field full of tall grass, but he soon started blowing and snorting (in the good way!) once I got him trotting and thinking.  Once he’d figured out that there was probably nothing nearby which would attack him, I mounted up and we had a mini hack around the field.  I half wanted to ride him back down the lane to the yard, but the person assisting me wasn’t all that confident, so I decided to leave things on a good note and walk him home.  Another reasonably successful session for the books.

Our final workout recently came earlier this week: it was almost the hottest day of 2015 so far, and I didn’t have Prince’s saddle at the yard, so riding wasn’t an option, but I wanted him a little tired so that he was well-behaved for the podiatrist’s impending visit.  I didn’t try to achieve anything clever, just gave Prince some miles in his legs, working on some transitions with him out on the line: upwards and downwards, between walk, trot and canter.  It’s just nice, I thought, that he now does what I ask, when I ask for it.  He finally pretty much trusts me and sees me as a partner and leader, rather than a stranger.

At the end of the session, the podiatrist had arrived but was halfway through doing another horse.  Prince was sweaty, so needed a hose down before being seen, but I had a fair bit of time on my hands, so I took him for a walk to the top of the paddock to cool him off and give him the chance to stand in the shade.  Our neighbours were burning something next door, and as the smoke drifted through the trees, it was hit by the bright sunlight from overhead, creating the kind of light you typically see in heavily-edited or brilliantly-lit photoshoots, or even in CGI-filled movies.  I put Prince in position, crouched down and shot away, producing some pictures I’m pretty proud of – you can check them out below.

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I’m a little behind where I’d like to be, but overall in a good horsey place at the moment.  Hope you’re all enjoying the summer too!

Buck Brannaman demonstration review

Back in January, when I was deliberating over where to spend 2015, some news came my way which immediately added an item to the “Pro UK” list: Buck Brannaman would be coming to the UK to give his first ever clinic here in June.  I mourned for the fact that I wouldn’t be able to participate as a rider (Prince and I aren’t ready… and when I first heard about Buck’s visit, only one clinic had been announced, and it was too far away for me to borrow Prince and get him there – notice that the cost didn’t put me off, I’d sever a limb to ride at this man’s clinic), but I knew I would be able to at least go along and watch.  And, last Saturday, having decided to remain in the UK and following the scheduling of an event nearer to my home, I went to watch an evening demonstration which had been added to Buck’s three-day clinic with US Olympic showjumper Melanie Smith Taylor.

Part of me would have loved to have spectated at a day of the clinic itself, but not only was I worried about not getting the same out of watching other people ride as I would from participating, but the cost was also what I considered to be over the odds.

Back when my wildest dreams caused me to dare to enquire about rider places, I’d discovered that, unlike his normal clinics, Buck’s second UK clinic would be delivered in conjunction with a lady called Melanie Smith Taylor.  I’d never heard of her (any of my US readers know more about her?  She gave a brief and appropriate introduction before doing her demo, but I’m not sure how well-known she is), but the format sounded interesting: the students would be split in half, spending one half of the day with Buck, the other with Melanie, working on the basis of learning horsemanship skills and putting them into practice.  The cost of being a participant didn’t shock me, and given that it included stabling for three nights, I also thought it was in the ballpark of average for a well-renowned trainer who was travelling from the US – £750 per person.

Even when I checked Buck’s website and compared the UK price to the US one ($700, which is about £450), I didn’t balk.  As a retired event manager, I mentally balanced the books, factoring in fees for flights and accommodation, which Buck doesn’t normally have to pay (anyone who’s watched his movie knows he spends most of his time on the road, towing his horses around and sleeping in his caravan or in the homes of people who host his clinics).  The US clinics are also set up a little differently, with clinics normally being hosted on farms owned by friends of Buck, meaning little or no venue costs (in the UK, they were held at two equestrian centres).  The crunch came for me when I saw the spectator costs: £45 per day for the Liverpool clinic, £50 per day for the Guildford one.  Unreal, I thought, given that nothing special is included in this price.  A copy of Buck’s book?  No.  A DVD?  Definitely not.  A tea or coffee?  Not even.  The cost of spectating in the US?  $30 per day (approximately £20).

I’m aware that we mere spectators are piggybacking on the learning of those riding in the clinic, but it feels like, as they are getting the most out of it and are paying for the privilege, that they should also be covering the bulk of the costs.  Spectator fees – as they are in the US – should be a nominal bonus for hosts/organisers, rather than a nice fat profit margin.  Guildford earned themselves some extra money by charging £32 per ticket for the demonstration (£35 on the door).  I considered this a more reasonable fee, but it was almost a full house, and the show was directly for our benefit, rather than us essentially watching a group of other people have a riding lesson.

There are some fantastic equestrian events in the UK and Europe, and we are very lucky that we are visited by many people, have brilliant facilities and host lots of events in a small distance, which the US doesn’t benefit from.  But I do feel that we are hit in the pocket – something that I’ve pointed out previously, and something which I still object to.  Organisers: please don’t insult us.  If we want our sport to be innovative and accessible, we need to talk about prices.  I’ll let you lick and chew on that one, and get back to the original point.

Having seen Monty Roberts do a demo last year, I was even more intrigued to see Buck.  I missed the Parellis doing their first UK demo in years back in March (guess what put me off attending?  Yep, that’d be the £100 price tag on the ticket), and I’d have loved to have compared it to horsemanship’s biggest marketing machine, but I am sadly unable to.  I knew Buck would be a very different experience: he’s far less commercial than Monty and the Parellis, and keeps things rather simpler and less flashy.

True to form, having watched two horses be warmed up from the ground and saddle when we arrived, Buck appeared in the arena at the appointed start time, settled himself down into a chair and gave his demonstration with very little fanfare.  Whether or not he had begun to take on students was something I had been wondering (although regarded as a contemporary of Pat Parelli and Mark Rashid, I suspect Buck is younger than both of them, and all three are younger than Monty Roberts) – Roberts and Parelli have run training schemes and essentially franchised out their programmes for a long time, but Buck and Rashid remain more independent.  It’s nice to know that Buck has taken on a few students quietly – one of them rode under his instruction for the demo, and what happened was very little.

Buck opened by stating that during his 30+ years as a clinician, the issue he’s seen every single time is herd-bound horses; that is, those who are difficult to separate from their friends for whatever reason, even for a matter of minutes.  He puts the humans at fault here, for making allowances and persistently giving the fussy horses what they want, and proceeded to show an exercise he uses to separate the horse from their “sweetie pie”.

The demonstration horse wasn’t on the clinic, but had kicked up a fuss when other horses on the yard had been prepared to take to the clinic, so the owner had been allowed to bring him along for the demo.  So: not a horse Buck had worked with previously, and not one he had promised to fix for the purpose of the show, but one he would work with.  It was completely different to watching Monty Roberts and Kelly Marks take the reins of a willing owner’s horse and show us how it’s done.  Buck and his student worked the horse steadily, playing a game known as a passenger ride, whereby the rider is aiming to get the horse to a certain point in the arena, but without directing him.  All the rider would do would be to ask the horse to keep moving if he stopped, or to stop or slow down if he was pleased with where the horse had gone.  The idea was to make it uncomfortable for the horse to be where he wanted, and comfortable for him to be where the rider wanted – implementing two horsemanship ideals I’ve heard before: make your idea the horse’s idea; make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.

The process took about two hours (Pat Parelli has a similar theory, one which Prince and I have tested, that something never takes longer than two days!) – there were ups and downs, moments where Buck went full-on riding instructor and shouted at his student, and interesting anecdotes.  Buck took the opportunity at one moment to point out that the horse had regressed a little, and reassured the audience that this is okay, it’s part of learning for the horse.  Sometimes, confidence wavers and they are unsure, but persistence and consistency are the key to success, and sure enough, the horse came through the regression and went on to succeed.  Many of the audience gasped when Buck got tough on his student, but I didn’t find his shouting overly harsh – it’s an exercise they’ve clearly done before, the instruction had already been issued calmly, and I’ve heard instructors blow up worse!  In fact, I’m sure Buck himself has been shouted at far louder than he shouted at his student.

Interestingly, Buck quickly made a damning comment about lungeing – something that Monty Roberts had also done – which made me smile: it’s funny to see horsemen with quite different approaches be the same at their core, sharing fundamental values and seeing certain things in the same way.  One of my favourite quotes of the night was one which clearly wasn’t contrived, it came about when the horse began to show some independence: “To me, there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a horse think, and someone allowing a horse to think.”

Unlike at Monty’s demo, there was no rush to achieve.  There was an aim, sure, but there was a point at which it felt time really would run out, and I knew that Buck wasn’t going to push the horse, but would instead settle for less.  Fortunately, the horse leapt on and progressed (and the session was allowed to run over), meaning the goal was reached.  Buck reiterated that consistency would be key, and that a few habits needed to be trained out of the horse in order to prevent the herd-bound behaviour from returning, and to stop the gelding from failing to think for himself.  There was no panic, no force, and no gimmicks, just a simple lesson taught in a straightforward way.

The idea of attending a three-day clinic as a rider intimidates me – I’m not enough of a horsewoman, the horse I have to ride would be nowhere near ready (even if I were allowed to borrow him!), and I worry that it would be a huge amount to take in.  But even if I thought at the beginning that I were the worst rider and horseperson present, I’d still give a lot in order to take up the opportunity: it’d be worth the sacrifice in my own pride in order to improve, and that £750 of knowledge would stay with me forever.

For now, I’ll settle for ordering myself a new book come payday, and keep dreaming of the day I get to tick riding at a clinic off my bucket list.

Open for business

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me!  I haven’t had time to write a full blog post today, so I thought I’d give you a peek at the events I helped put on last week.

The Equine Partners open days were a great success – lots of people came to visit us, there was a huge amount of cake consumed, and our visitors were very generous with their donations in return for said cake.  It’s now onward and upwards to make the most of the summer, getting lots of sessions in and continuing the good work that we do…

Here’s our yard looking busier than it ever has before!  We normally only see one family at a time (all images are clickable to enlarge)

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Kira made some new friends!  I promise she didn’t eat anyone…

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Prince and I were teaching a student and ended up doing a demo I was very proud of!  He tried really hard and gave me some great things

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I did some demo sessions as well, here’s Kira doing some teaching about obstacles and communication

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And finally, we took the opportunity to have a photo shoot – here’s Prince and me posing shamelessly

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Hope to be back on track next week!

The week the wheels came off… and went back on

I’m beginning to settle into my new working/horsey balance pattern.  There’s still going to be some adjusting along the way, but last week saw a bit of a golden opportunity: I would spend both Monday and Saturday at the yard, and I should’ve had enough time to work with and ride Prince on both days.  Should being the operative word.

As it happened, time wasn’t the issue: we spent most of Monday entertaining some guests – employees of the local council who make lots of referrals to us, and came to have a kind of experience day.  We showed them directly what the kids they refer to us get to do, by running some sessions for them.  There were also cookies and cups of tea and lots of questions, all of which was good practice for the coming week (our open days are finally happening!) as we had to be “on” all the time, fielding questions about what we do, how we do it and the impact it has.

Once the goodbyes had been said and the morning declared a success, it was time for Prince to do some real work (having spent an hour conning a group of people into picking him the juiciest grass from the other side of the fence and hand-feeding it to him).  By this point, there was a sideways wind and he wasn’t really in the mood to work, having been in the company for a very extroverted group all morning.  Nor was I, if I’m honest, with a couple of distractions playing on my mind.  But I set to it anyway, grooming him and tacking up to ride.

I realised not long into our ground work session that riding wasn’t a good idea.  Prince gave me a lot of attitude, wasn’t really concentrating and didn’t seem capable of achieving much.  So I got to a place where we’d done something good, then gave up for the day.  I was pretty despondent – handling my emotions is something I’m not great at, especially when I’ve got a goal which I don’t think is going to be reached.  As the play day gets closer, I’ve had far less saddle time than I’d like (I know that’s always the way, but I haven’t really ridden at all, rather than it being a case of getting only three hours of riding a week when my ideal would be six or eight).  When I went home on Monday, I felt pretty hopeless.

I had four days away to try and get myself together, but although Saturday dawned sunny and warm, I still wasn’t feeling any more positive.  But my day started with a surprise: I had to move Bella, alpha mare of the little herd, to another paddock.  Over the winter, she was easy to handle (because she was cold and knew that humans = helpers); throughout the spring, she has become progressively awkward to catch, as her owner’s pregnancy has advanced and she’s not receiving the attention that she thinks she should be.  As an extroverted horse, she’s basically a bit bored, so I played the catching game with her.

Bella and I did a dance around the field, but it wasn’t Bella leading me in a game of chase, it was me saying, “okay, let’s play”.  I had to go a little carefully, as she’s (we suspect) torn a muscle in a hind leg and has limited her mobility a little at the moment, but there was more than enough movement for a quick game.  As we made our way across the paddock, we reached Prince’s favourite spot – small tree stump, which Prince itches on but all of the horses can use as a podium.  Bella was on one side of it, I was on the other, so I backed away and beckoned her towards me.  It’s plenty small enough for her to step over, and she had the option to go safely around either side of it… but she chose to step up onto it with her front feet.  I almost fell over in shock.  I’ve done no real liberty work on my horsemanship journey so far, and here I was with an injured alpha mare offering me a big touchdown.  I stood and gawped for a few seconds, praising Bella verbally, before gently stepping into her space and scratching her neck as she stood on the log.  There was just enough time for me to step back and snap a couple of quick pictures before she got down, stood quietly behind the log and waited whilst I went and haltered her.

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One satisfied horse gave me a confidence boost, and when it came time to work with Prince a couple of hours later, the weather was calm and sunny, I was in a good mood and we were ready to go.  I plaited him up again (my skills in that area are definitely improving!) and away we went.  I played a quick variety of games, trying to get him focused, particularly on picking his front feet up and being aware of where they are – he trips a bit at the moment, even though he’s sound and his tack fits, it seems to be a concentration issue, so I tried my best to get him switched on.

Happy that he was ready to go, I swapped his halter for a bridle and hopped on.  My previous ride a few weeks earlier had involved him expressing some quite serious opinions on going round corners (we were only able to do so sideways at a walk – not ideal), but I focused on where we were at and moved off.  He was a bit wobbly in that he finds maintaining straightness hard (which is due to all sorts of things: not being ride-fit, being inexperienced under saddle, and being ridden in a different paddock to where he normally is), because again, it involves concentrating, but I decided to forgive him the wonky lines and focus on just getting forwards – we have the rest of our lives to ride spirit level lines if we want to, I just wanted to get closer to a point where we might be able to leave the yard and go on a hack one day!

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from the way this was captured, in my head this looks like we’re doing a piaffe… maybe one day!

Having walked around for a while, checking steering and brakes, I nudged Prince into a trot and found him much more willing than before.  I continued to focus on transitions, forwards and gentle steering and, eventually, we cornered at a trot!  See below for triumphant video:

Please excuse my hideously out of practice riding, and Prince’s aforementioned wobbly form.  It’s a work in progress, but that’s now the key word: progress was again made.  I’ve got everything crossed that I’ll ride at the play day in a month, but I’m trying not to hold my breath…

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look at his beautiful swishy feathers!

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and we can do backup too!

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Oh, and the other thing?  I realised whilst I was riding that when I checked my Timehop app on Saturday morning, a photo had appeared from a year ago of me riding another 15hh black horse… on a different continent, in a different type of saddle and of a completely different build, but either way – two years, two 15hh Black Beauties.  It’s funny how life works out!

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on the left: Murray in the US, 2014; on the right: Prince in the UK, 2015. Spot the difference!

It’s not about the…

I’ve posted about building relationships with equines before, but something popped up on my Twitter feed the other day at the right time, so I thought I’d re-visit the topic.

A Parelli instructor blogged about how it can take as little as 15 minutes per day to build a better relationship with your horse and improve on the fundamentals, in response to consistent pleas of, “but I haven’t got time to teach my horse that”.  At first glance, the concept of spending “just” 15 minutes per day can sound a little bit like you’re being offered a miracle cure or being talked into a fad diet.  As many of us know, there are no quick fixes with horses, but I buy this idea.  Why?  Because I know it’s true.

When I’m working with a horse – particularly early in our relationship – I tend to go for pretty short sessions, because there’s such a thing as too much, both for them and for me.  Do something small, do it well, then quit and leave each other alone to think about it.  You have to get out of the mindset of “I only achieved X today”, because the truth is you could have achieved nothing.  Because it typically takes a long time to get good at a skill, there’s this misconception that you have to train for hours in one hit in order to look like you’re working hard, but that really isn’t the case.  Physical exertion in particular – especially if the person or animal in question is in poor condition – gets less effective when undertaking long sessions, so to give yourself and your horse too much to think about on top of that is counter-productive.

A real case in point is that I’ve seen Prince twice this week already (I was really maximising my days off!): on Monday, I went to the yard to feed the horses and give my sister a quick ground work lesson.  I half intended to work with Prince too, but decided against it.  However, I sat on an upturned bucket in the field whilst my sister worked, and Prince ambled over eventually.  He turned around, waved a leg at me (not like that), and I duly scratched it (he does this a lot – he’ll walk over to the fence if a person is nearby and waggle a leg, demanding it be scratched).  He was a very happy horse when I ended the lesson a while later and I hadn’t asked anything of him.

I returned the next day, Jo and I set up some obstacles to continue our open day and playday prep, and Prince actually had fun.  I’ve been very guilty of being “work work work” when he and I are together, as I keep my original remit in mind, so I forget that we should sometimes just enjoy ourselves.  But I had him posing up on the pedestal (which he loves) and offering some great tries with a scary obstacle.  The only disappointing thing was that I couldn’t get him to offer me any jumping, but I’m putting that at least partly down to my apparent inability to encourage jumping from the ground – I need some practice!  Ultimately though, things were much improved, and after just a short session, we were both feeling good.  I didn’t spend hours “perfecting” any of the obstacles, it was enough for me that we did certain things with all of them.

As the other blog says: your horse will be there tomorrow, and the next day.  That doesn’t mean you should put things off, but it does mean that you should take one step, then make sure you keep coming back to take more steps.

Open for… everyone!

I mentioned previously that we’re having some open days at the charity I’m working with, Equine Partners CIC (new website still in the works!), so I thought I’d share some more details!  Behold, our lovely flyer:

EP open days flyer

If ponies and cake aren’t enough to entice those from far and wide, how about this: we’ll be running demonstration sessions, open to anyone who shows up – once we have enough people, we’ll head into the paddock with one of the horses or ponies and play, so that you can see what would happen were you or someone you know require our services.  These sessions always start with you grooming the pony, so there’s plenty of hands-on horse time and a chance to make a new furry friend.

During the breaks in mock sessions, we’ll be doing some horsemanship demonstrations, a kind of “here’s what’s possible” deal… this is the part where I’m supposed to show off a bit, though what I’ll be able to show on the day is anyone’s guess!  Prince currently quite likes going sideways, so perhaps we’ll do some pretty leg yielding from the ground, who knows?!

On top of that, we’ll have a tack sale, some competitions (my ideas are currently: guess how many horse treats in the jar and guess the weight of the horse – sadly, you won’t be winning the horse as is traditional with cakes, but we will have a cuddly toy to win!) and, most importantly, the chance to talk to the team about what we do, why we do it and why people should be involved.  We’re predominantly currently raising funds for a new extra large field shelter to keep our herd cosy over the winter (I know, summer hasn’t even begun, but you have to think ahead!) and ensure that their field stays in good condition.

If you’d like more information, contact details are on the flyer above, but anyone is welcome to attend, just show up between the above times and say hi.  We can’t wait to meet you!

Progress

It’s poor form for a blogger to take an unannounced hiatus, but it had to be done.  My life is still pretty unremarkable, in that the debacle with my new job failing to be able to give me a start date rumbles on, so my days are actually startlingly empty, but that perhaps is an explanation for the impetus to blog being lacking!  Not that I intend to blog a lot about my day job when it finally starts, but when you have very little going on, motivation towards other things tends to drop too, and that’s the hole I fell into.

Happily, the equine side of my life is only getting busier.  This continues to shock me, as well as delighting me: when I chose to stick in the UK for the year, I didn’t think I’d get this far with what I’m trying to do, but circumstances have dictated that I’m suddenly heavily involved in a project I really enjoy!

During my time away from the blog, the charity I’m working with have scheduled their events for the summer, which sort of means I’m a little bit out of retirement.  We’re running two open days in June, and two play days (one in July, the other in August) – those are exactly as they sound, a toddler-style play date, except we bring our horses and play horse games rather than bringing children!  Well, children may well come with their ponies, and some of our kids on our programmes will hopefully be in attendance, but it’s about playing games with your horse and having fun with friends.  And eating cake.  Because, why not?

So preparations are well underway for those, with me busily contacting media outlets (if you’d like to cover our events, please let me know!) and getting quotes for branded t-shirts and proofreading our new website (hopefully coming very soon).  And on top of that, I’ve still been trying to get to the yard twice each week in order to help with sessions and develop the horses.  Then around all of those things I eat, sleep and try to maintain a social life without an income – it’s a tough job sometimes!

One of the constants in my life since November has been my work with Prince.  The initial reason for me being asked to ride him (because that’s always been the intention, I’ve mostly been unable to due to our lack of riding surface over the winter) was that he’s a horse who needs to be in work, but his owner has taken a hit to her confidence.  Prince therefore underwent a full re-start with a Parelli instructor, then was handed back to us to continue with his journey.  As the winter trundled on and I wasn’t able to ride, we all doubted the timing of the re-start, pretty much wishing it had been left until the Spring, so that I could then retain the momentum which went with it, but hindsight is a wonderful thing!  Instead, I plugged on with what I was able to do, which was lots and lots of ground work.

The ground work has improved enormously with the recent beautiful weather – I’ve been able to work for longer periods outside with him on a longer line (you really are limited with what you can do when you’ve got an anxious horse who has a huge capacity for work on a short rope), and a few weeks ago, my friend’s bareback pad was duly retrieved so that we could build up to getting him back under saddle.  Despite having had nothing around his (massive) belly since early November, Prince reacted well to the cinch and bareback pad, and I carried on for a few sessions, waiting for the saddle to also be produced from storage.

That happened last weekend, and I got a refresher lesson in tacking up – Prince’s saddle is a Western one, and much fancier than the ones I’ve used at camp!  It’s got lots of latigos (leather strings which are used for tying all of your kit to your saddle… I assume for cowboys, this is things like tents.  I see them as useful for hooking up things like my lunch) and a breastplate (I’ve never fitted an English one, nevermind a Western one).  And we didn’t have Prince’s proper cinch, so it took a bit of adjusting to use the one we had, but the intention wasn’t to ride, so I wasn’t bothered about it being perfect and rideable, I just wanted him to wear the saddle and be comfortable in it, then put him away again.

The biggest challenge was swinging the saddle on from the off side!  It’s the Western way, because you have more stuff attached to that side of the saddle, so to swing the cinch, breastplate and other detachable bits over the horse doesn’t make sense.  I’ve got a great rhythm and muscle memory for swinging Western saddles on from the near side, but it’s weird to reverse the action.  So that took two attempts.  Fortunately, Prince is only 15 hands, so it’s less height to have to throw it than some of the 16.2 hand horses from camp, but I’m definitely out of practice!  The best news is that he reacted well to being saddled again, so off we went to do some work.

It’s probably the best session Prince and I have ever had.  From the word go, he was relaxed and connected, giving me what I asked for and showing some confidence.  Although my plan hadn’t been to ride, it felt right to hop on for a few minutes, so with a little help from Jo to play around with me stood on the mounting block, I soon got on.  I took my time, having Prince relax by the mounting block and rubbing him all over before mounting up – and when I did, I took the time to hang over the saddle and rub him again before swinging my leg over and settling down.  Almost as soon as my backside hit the saddle, he blew out and relaxed – Jo and I almost cheered.

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I had Prince amble across the field in his halter, asked him to back up, requested a bit of lateral flexion, posed for some pictures and then dismounted again.  We got a highly positive five minutes of saddle time – another building block on the way to future success, and the first time in 2015 that I’ve sat on a horse!  It was a long wait, but now we have a new target in our sights: 12 July sees us host our first play day at the yard, and I may even be so bold as to ride him in neither a bridle nor a halter…

Setting up for a win

Due to high winds, Prince got a reprieve last week.  He doesn’t know that, of course.  He never knows what’s going to happen when I show up, and this week he got a bit of a shock.

The plan was to test the “it never takes longer than two days” theory (meaning that there’s a limit for how long even the most stubborn or messed up horse will hold out before realising that they’re doing things the hard way).  As I’ve mentioned before, Prince has gone from lacking in trust and confidence to figuring out several ways around me.  Like many horse people, I’m too nice, too concerned for the horse, and like naughty children, they play on our insecurities.  Basically, it was time to show Prince that I’m serious, and that if I want him to trot all day, he’ll jolly well trot all day.

There were a few things which worried me about this – mostly different ways of saying, “I think I’ll mess it up, but I so desperately want to get it right” – so I gathered my thoughts and game plan very carefully before going out to work.  Essentially, the plan was to put Prince on a circle and have him trot until he offered proper relaxation.  There would be no whipping and beating, because we have other cues (we reached the point long ago whereby I’d ask him to go and he’d go), and the method we follow believes in telling the horse once what they have to do, and not nagging them to keep doing it when they already are.  So if his attitude changed for the worse or his speed dropped through laziness rather than a genuine incapability, he’d get a reminder of what his job was, but otherwise I’d just walk with him.

I started with a bit of yo-yo to make sure he was connected, and I’m glad I did: the send was great, the draw was terrible, which I think was Prince’s way of saying “I know you don’t want me to circle yet, so if I just stand here twenty feet away, I don’t have to do any work”.  So I changed the game a bit in order to get a reaction out of him and, following an uncharacteristic level of patience on my part, it worked.  But work is still needed there.  If he’s already in motion, the draw is too good; if he’s stood still, there’s no draw at all.  I think there’s a lesson in there about energy…

The circling eventually began.  I honestly thought I’d be sending him in circles for hours.  We had a false start as he managed to stand on the rope (a favourite trick of our horses in order to get out of work), which backfired on him, as it reminded me I really had to raise my game.  I concentrated hard on what I wanted and paid attention to the little things – sending his shoulder away so that the tension in the rope increased, meaning that he couldn’t stand on it; driving him forward if he slacked, but not leading with my hand; watching for the smallest signs of relaxation and rewarding each try…

Fifty minutes later, the relaxation was being offered quickly, and I called it a day.  He didn’t trot the entire time – walk breaks were given as rewards for big tries – but my arms were quite sore and I was pretty dizzy!  I think I’d unwittingly set myself up to succeed: the weather has been beautifully warm for early April the last few days, and given that Prince is fat and still has half a winter coat, he was white with sweat and fairly tired – he held out for less time than he might have had it been a more comfortable day.  We chilled out in the field for a few minutes, him cropping at the grass and me trying to unwind my shoulders, before we hosed him off and turned him out with one of his friends.

The ultimate object of the exercise is that the horse no longer questions your persistence, and the hope is that you only have to do it once in order to teach that lesson.  Time will tell…