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.


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.

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…

Phase four

“It’s okay,” they said, “we understand that sometimes you have to go to phase four.”  Prince and I got a workout in last week, and I had some questions.  Namely: “has it got to the point where he’s now taking the mickey out of me?” and “am I reading this correctly?” (the answer to both was yes).

The session led me to notice a few things: Prince has got to the stage where he’s confident enough to push me – he learns quicker than I do, and figured out that if he does a certain thing, I interpret it in a certain way and go easy on him.  So that has to stop, and the new habits start this week – he’s become bolder, so I have to change my behaviour too.  I’m guilty of being told something and holding onto that knowledge, rather than watching things change and coming up with a new strategy.  I also need to try more things: I sort of learned this a few weeks ago when it became apparent that we were both a bit bored, but it’s also the case with developing our language, the way we communicate with each other.  I have my own natural gestures and body language, but sometimes he doesn’t get it.  So it’s time to invent more words.

The good news is that he’s become much more connected to me, and that’s partly down to the fact that he has to be, because I’m mixing it up more.  We most commonly play the circling game, because it’s what he needs to improve his confidence (and, these days, take responsibility for himself), but I’ve recently added a lot more yo-yo… as the send part of circling game is the same as the beginning of a yo-yo game, he has to pay more attention, rather than assuming I’m going to put him on a circle.  Last week, it got to the point where I was using tiny gestures to get what I wanted, and had his ear the entire time.  He looked more genuinely curious and engaged, which was a relief to me – I don’t think he considers me to be a fun partner most of the time, so it’s nice to see those moments.

And all of this got me thinking about what it’s like to work with someone else’s horse.  It’s not the first time I’ve done it, through one scenario or another, but I don’t consider myself qualified to really do so.  I don’t, after all, have any equestrian qualifications to my name, all I have is the fact that I can (mostly) stay on a horse.  That said, there’s a difference between being a paid professional and being a friend who helps out or is offered the gift of free rides.  I’ve always fallen into the latter category – I’ve never undertaken or sought paid roles in terms of exercising or training horses, so does that mean I am entitled to feel less duty-bound?  I don’t think it does.

Any horse person will tell you that horses are precious.  We spend a lot of time and money on them, they are meant to bring us happiness and fulfilment.  Handing over your horse’s lead rope or reins to someone else is like asking someone to help you raise your children – it takes a phenomenal amount of trust and there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly as the owner would like to do it themselves, and not to outdo the owner.

My first experience with riding someone else’s horse came when I was about 14: the owner had recently had a baby and kept her horse at home.  Her friend, who lived along the same rode had bought a pony for her own daughter, who was only little and so the pony needed more exercise – enter my sister to hack out the pony, and me to ride the horse.  My sister and I hacked out together regularly for a summer, with the two women riding out occasionally on weekdays when both had horses available.  When I arrived to hack out one morning, the mare’s owner commented that she’d hopped on for a toddle out with her friend that week to find her horse really striding out and marching along, when the mare was normally a little lazy and she and her friend usually just ambled around the lanes a bit aimlessly.

“Sorry,” I winced, “force of habit, I like whatever I’m riding to be doing something, and working actively even if we are hacking.”

“Oh no, it’s absolutely fine,” the owner replied.  “I’d like her to be back in proper work, so thank you for getting her going, it was just a shock!”

I hadn’t realised I’d been quite so forceful with the horse, and I’d certainly never asked her to do anything she was incapable of.  But it was a lesson in the fact that I was perhaps more capable than I knew, and that I had to remember I wasn’t riding my own horse…

These days, I definitely worry about getting it wrong with someone else’s horse.  Which is funny, because it’s actually quite hard to do given that I’m mostly supervised and very well-supported.  But I’m acutely aware that it’s not my horse, and how much he means to the people who are responsible for him.  Getting to do the work that I do and aiming for the goal we have in mind is fantastic experience for me, and it all means that I don’t feel the need to be rushing out and buying a horse of my own – I’m in a very fortunate position that I have a horse who I’m not responsible for financially or on a day to day basis, but who I have access to and permission to work with.  And yet something still holds me back.  Would I still have these insecurities with my own horse?  Probably.  But if I got something wrong with my own, I think there’d be less guilt – I’d feel bad for the horse that I messed up, but I’d know that it just meant it were my responsibility to correct whatever I’d done, no matter how big or small.  When someone else is involved, it’s another person to have been let down.  And that’s another lesson to learn.

Riders, owners, trainers: how do you cope with both responsibility and relinquishing it?  Do you prefer to work in collaboration with the owner/rider or work alone in order to get things ready for them?

Testing the waters

It feels like spring is trying to mount a charge: the daylight hours are increasing, and I even spot a glowing orb in the sky on some days.  It’s definitely getting a little warmer (though I still choose skiwear for the yard), and rain is a slight surprise rather than an expected occurrence.  Having fed the horses this morning, we pulled our chairs out of the tack room and into a patch of sun to have a drink and a chat whilst planning our work for the day.  I almost felt my face change colour.  As we contemplated what to do, I felt myself itching to make the most of the day and get out of the barn – space is limited in there, and due to the underlying concrete, trot work is very limited.  I’ve been aching to get Prince onto a longer line to see if we’ve improved over the last three months, so we decided to brave the sticky field and work outside.

Previously on "Becky and Prince": working in the barn last week - Charlie can't resist sneaking into the picture

Previously on “Becky and Prince”: working in the barn last week – Charlie can’t resist sneaking into the picture

Off I went, hauling my feet through the clay-mud with a 22 foot line determinedly in hand (and plenty of treats in my pocket – I’m definitely going to need a bumbag this summer, I thought to myself, as I realised that the one benefit to winter is that coats mean pockets).  Prince seemed happy to be remaining outside rather than being taken to the barn for a workout – I’m getting just a little concerned as to what he might do when I finally get him under saddle… this horse is definitely ready for a good run!

I warmed him up for a few minutes on the normal 12 foot line, before switching to the 22 – it’s three months since I’ve used it, and my experience is still very limited, I find it hard to juggle the knitting and an unconfident horse who is easily confused by my body language, but we both have to learn somehow!  What disappointed me most is that I had to put my gloves on: I always worried about burns when I first started working with ropes, until I realised how much gloves negatively affect my feel, and that I’m generally working in a small space with a short line – the horse doesn’t have far to go, and ultimately if I have to drop the rope and let him, it’s no big deal… until you’re in a 10 acre field with a very strong and panicky cob on a 22 foot line.

Generally, we’ve definitely improved.  Relaxation is offered far easier than it was in the beginning, and that’s been our main aim.  Prince even offered some canter of his own accord, which always shocks me given that he normally only canters for food!  The one thing that’s become obvious we need to work on quickly is the speed with which he returns to me: he’s a 15 hand horse with 12 hand legs, but he’s a lot of horse widthways (hopefully not for long!) and once you call him in, he really barrels at you in relief.  So I have to get him to be more controlled with his return, and I have to stop jumping out of the way!

Things are going in the right direction though, and progress is being made.  I ended the session pretty tired from the mental and physical workout, and I’m sure Prince had a lot to think about too.  Here’s hoping the weather and fields continue to improve, so that we can really crack on.  It might even be time to get his trainer back to see what she can advise, now that Prince and I have a relationship and can work together in a reasonable fashion…


I wasn’t expecting to ride this week.  I’m currently having a lesson once per fortnight, and that was last week.  After last week’s lesson, I was supposed to meet up with someone I’d connected with by pure chance when I was working in a shop before Christmas and got chatting for long enough to discover that this lady is setting up an equine learning business and likes what I have to say for myself (this is the point at which I sent a mental “thank you” to the person who taught me the importance of being able to talk to anyone who’s put in front of you).  However, due to the horrific weather and fairly-remote nature of this person’s property, the meeting was cancelled.

Fortunately, we re-arranged for this week.  The weather clung on and I found myself at a beautiful private yard, watching as this woman did some ground work with one of her mares – a four-year old Quarter Horse who is much-loved and has a huge personality.  We chatted at a million miles per hour and I know my brain didn’t take in everything that was said about personalities and Parelli, but I tried my best to absorb by watching the way this mare worked.

She worked in a Western saddle and Parelli halter, with her owner using a combination of voice, click and carrot stick commands, as well as body language.  Apparently, I did the right thing without being told: I didn’t invade the mare’s space, but stayed involved in the exercise by remaining at a consistent distance (she spent most of her time on a kind of short lunge distance, so I was mainly staying out of the way so that I didn’t get run over!).  This mare is great – she walks, trots and canters on voice commands, which isn’t something her owner does as a standard, but something they learned to do occasionally together because the horse finds it comforting.

I love finding horse owners who are so doting without being misguided: every yard has the owners who baby their horses, who won’t see that their beast does any wrong, and the reality is that the horse has the owner wrapped tightly around their fetlock.  But this person is a brilliant example of using love and devotion to understand her horses and make their mutual working more effective, rather than it making the horses soft.  The horses know there’s a boundary and a chain of command, but they also know that right and wrong exist.  Positive reinforcement is used and there’s a keen understanding that work must be done, but that it can be fun.

At the same time, it’s not perfect.  Learning takes place every time.  This has been the mare’s home since she was a yearling, and the bond between her and her owner is strong, but it’s a lifelong process of growing together.  This is what happens when you can’t communicate verbally – there is always an element of unpredictability and having to figure each other out.  So rather than getting cross with each other at any point, this pair tell each other in their own way when they’re confused or it’s not going how they want it to, and in a good way, they work through it.

After I’d seen the ground work with the mare, I was invited to ride one of the other horses – a beautifully-looked after 18-year old who was supposed to be a show jumper but didn’t make it, and has been with his owner for 10 years now.  He was tacked up in an English saddle and a Parelli halter and rope reins, rather than a bridle.  I was told that he’d work with both English or Western reins and that, initially, I could pick.

I mounted up and we went to the arena.  He’s a lovely big horse, the kind I enjoy riding, with a fantastically comfortable saddle and a swinging gait which often belies his years.  If you’d just landed from another planet, you also wouldn’t know that this horse has had little work due to the weather – he’s very quiet (read: older and a little on the lazy side), and I had no trust issues (in fact, I realised I’m going to make a more conscious effort to wait for a horse to give me a reason to mistrust them, rather than being anxious from the off).  However, he did test me quickly… by stopping.

I was told that he’s stubborn, and that the more you ask for something, the less likely you are to get it.  Meaning: don’t boot and flap your legs, because he’ll just stay stock still.  This was a real challenge for my currently-weak position, because it meant really thinking and using my seat and thigh contact to create impulsion and forward movement, rather than relying on my lower leg.  Remember: I’m also riding in a halter, so I have no hand contact either.

Another clue I was given is that this horse doesn’t enjoy schooling and going round in circles.  There are a few Parelli “toys” in the arena that the horses like and are used to – a set of two ground poles, a ball and two barrels, so I looped around the toys for a while letting him work in and play a bit.  It was great fun riding him up to the ball and seeing what he’d do – the first time, he stood and licked it for quite some time, because I’d not ridden to it with any impulsion and purpose, but later in the session he kicked it along very playfully in both walk and trot.

As I think back on the session, I’m really proud of myself.  It’s always hard riding a horse in front of his owner, but this felt like a very low-pressure situation, possibly because we’d been chatting for an hour beforehand and I was relaxed and happy.  I received some good comments on my position and enjoyed riding in the halter – it’s such an interesting thing to see how we rely on our hands.  We weren’t aiming for me to have the horse completely rounded and working into the “bridle”, just to have him going forwards and doing what I wanted.   I often think my downwards transitions are sloppy, so to take away the crutch of a mouth contact and force myself to really think about what I’m doing with my seat was a fantastic exercise and I’m pleased to say that the horse and I picked up on each other quickly: my first walk to halt transition was very drawn out, but the next one was far better (I think he was testing me, because after that, I was much happier with every single transition).

With the help of a schooling whip, I moved on to some trot work.  The owner suggested that, given that this horse can back off too persistent a leg aid, I try really focusing on my seat and thigh contact, with the whip as backup.  So we started to trot and, following some transitions which I was quite proud of, the trot picked up nicely.  Again, focusing on my seat, I spiralled him in and out on a 20 metre circle at walk at one point – not concentrating overly on bend or flexion, just experimenting with seat contact and body position to make him go where I wanted, rather than relying too heavily again on my lower leg.

The brief canter work was also lovely – and great to ride a horse who didn’t fight me into canter with a buck – and I pretty much didn’t want it to end.  The last few minutes were spent asking the horse to move sideways.  He’s apparently not big into dressage, but sidesteps he can do when persuaded, and his owner helped me to move him sideways along one of the poles.  I was amazed that I was able to do it, again without a bridle, but still holding him together on all planes to stop him ducking backwards or stepping forwards, and taking into account his stubbornness.

Both the horse and I came away from the session very relaxed, and I’ve been invited back to hack him out at the weekend with his owner on another horse.  One of the other things today reminded me of was the importance of horses as my breathing space – my riding was stressing me out again, as were a few other things, so today could have gone terribly.  But I think a change of scenery, focus and mindset helped me to re-adjust, settle and produce what’s possibly the best work I’ve done since last summer.  My time in the saddle today was spent concentrating entirely on the horse and me, when I was in a very precarious situation mentally.  I’m glad I was able to switch off, reset myself and get ready to move on.

I don’t know what is ahead beyond Saturday but, if nothing else, I had a great ride today.  It’s still there, I just have to tap into it.