Hard work is just that…hard

Hmm.. feeling a little unsure about that horse training thing today. Let me explain. Yesterday Dandy got quite upset about his new surroundings and I chose to get pretty “big” to bring him to me mentally. Feet and body followed, and today he was almost a different horse about the new place. Still looking at a few things, but overall WAY more relaxed. Obviously, I had chosen to do the right thing, and done it well. No question on that front.

Dandy17Avr17-03Today getting prepped up and saddled was a breeze

Still thinking about his difficulty to focus in the new arena, due to the proximity of various unfamiliar and fascinating species (sheep, geese, deer, etc), I chose to give him something else to focus on, so today I brought my correction bit and one ear headstall. He had a hard time putting it in his mouth, and equally hard to spit it out, so I think he may be a bit reluctant next time, but nothing a sugar cube won’t take care of 😉 The goal was to disrupt his thinking and make him forget the sheep, deer, geese, etc, and it worked even better than expected. That bit sure gave him a lot to think about, though. He chewed and chomped and raised his head a few times, experimenting with the new thing in his mouth, but pretty soon he realized getting soft and the poll and relaxing his jaw was the immediate way to comfort, and worked accordingly.

Dandy17Avr17-04At some point I ran out to fetch my spurs I’d left at the barn, and found him back *exactly* where I’d left him ! Good boy, lol

Once the bit was somewhat familiar and with my spurs on, we were ready for some serious work. And good work we did. Steering, bending, picking up the lope, stops, spins, we went at it like our life depending on it, and we did some pretty good work. But boy, what a workout, and I don’t only mean for the horse ! I realize than those Western maneuvers aren’t delivered on a silver plate, you have to train and train to get the proper response, and also give a little more “incentive” than I comfortable doing. I mean by that I always hoped I could reach a willingness in my horse that would mean very little to no constraint, but such is not the case. He’s not spinning for giggles, he knows the exercise but I often need to put my spur there stronger than I’d like to. Truth is, I have so much empathy for the horse that I just *hate* to apply any serious pressure at all. Weirdly enough, I have absolutely zero issue crashing a flag on his butt to get him to disengage on foot, or bumping his halter pretty hard to bring his nose in, because I feel those a pretty mild forms of pressure for a worried horse (you sometimes wonder if they even feel it all when they are focused on something “scarier”). But pushing a spur hard in my soft horse’s flank for the mere purpose of turning around, that just seems cruel and uncalled for, to me. Yeah, call me a whimp. Same for the bit. Never in a million years would I even consider “jacking” him in the mouth, no matter the goal I might be pursueing. Would horses not perform closely to what they do, if more riders were like me ? Probably. Would the world be full of much happier horses ? Yeah, that’s nearly a certainty. I guess to me, the end just doesn’t justify most of the means that are mainstream in the horse world.

Dandy17Avr17-01Dandy taking a breather at the end of our session

Does that mean we’re both gonna go on vacation and give up our ranch riding goals ? Certainly not ! It just means I have to kick myself in the butt and develop tougher work ethics and just face the fact that horses would naturally rather stay grazing in their pasture, and than getting their cooperation means pushing them at times.

Dandy17Avr17-02And once he’s worked well…

Dandy17Avr17-05He just goes back to his grass and his buddies. Next episode on Wednesday, after the naturel trimmer has come !

 

Walking a fine line

I’ve been away a week on vacation, and got back last night, so today I went to check on Dandy and put his ass back to work (or should I say, our mutual ass, as I work, too).

Dandy16Avr17-02I witnessed with pleasure that he’s put a bit of weight back on

I’m facing new challenges in the new place. Namely Dandy is concerned about two category of things. First, some livestock he’s never been exposed to before. Lamas, sheep (with lambs), spotted deer, geese, a cow… All of those are both fascinating and apparently potentially terrifying to him. He likes to keep an eye on them at all times, which is *not* what I want him to, since *I* want to be his constant focus when I’m around. Second, he’s not entirely sure about “the place”, itself. It’s a bunch of buildings put together, meaning a lot of doors, windows, pathways, hidden spaces threatening to “jump” at you at the corner of a wall, so he’s pretty much on high alert the whole time we tinker there, namely to get brushed and saddled, etc. Today after a very fidgety saddling up, I was leading him out of the covered prep space when he had a series of heart attacks. The wind was mildly blowing in a nearby tree’s branches and we passed a mirror that sent an unexpected and super scary reflexion. He jumped out of his skin, then twice as he got scared by the sound of his own hooves on concrete. That’s when I decided he needed help.

In this case, help is not pampering and cooing, help is moving the hell out of his feet at high speed and demanding that he circles around me, nose tipped in, bent at the ribs and disengaging his hindquarters on command. And yes, that involved a bunch of wild waving of the flag and even whipping his butt with it full force and handful of times, until he came to his sense and decided that I was way scarier than any “ghost” in the barn, and that he’d better give me his full attention. The split second I got that, all pressure was off, and the next thing he was walking a neat little relaxed circle, licking his lips in relief.

Dandy16Avr17-01Dandy post session and very, very sweaty

Next thing we worked under saddle in the nice and largish arena. I like this place a lot, it’s surrounded by tall pine trees on 2 sides, bordered by small buildings on one shorter side, and faces the sheep-lama-deer-geese-cow-etc pasture on its longer side. It’s not without its own challenges (horses grazing behind the trees, bunch of mess piled up in front of the building, and of course full view of the super scary baby sheep on the main side) but it’s roomy, sandy and I just like it. We started out by some lateral flexions (his attention was *fully* on the livestock at that point) to get his mind back, then we played “were-do-you-want-to-go”. Two spots were sticky so each time he’d either go or stop there, I just bumped him lightly but consistently with my spurs. We’ve been doing this routine long enough now that he quickly gets the message and starts using more of the arena. I let him chose his route and he very clearly avoided all the front part (which, interestingly enough, contains the gate) and getting too close to the longer side facing the “zoo”, especially at the middle, marked by an orange plastic cone. I had him trotting and loping on a totally lose rein anywhere he wanted, and he’d make tiny loops to stay in the one zone that he feels totally comfortable in. Gradually I started to take some limited contact on the reins, just enough to be able to influence his steering, and make the loops larger and larger, until we were roughly following a 2 yards inner limit from the fence, even going along the fence in some non scary parts. From then I alternated letting him go to shortening my reins, getting some collection and direction, than turning him lose when he did well.

As in all things, the more I worked, the “luckier” I got at getting better and better responses from him. At some point we were loping on and I must have changed my seat without wanting to or even knowing it, and he stopped dead in his tracks. My first impulse was to urge him on, but then I thought I had to be clearer in my cues, and just petted him for the good stop. We worked at various things and ended up with spins, yes, you read that well, actual spins. Sure, they weren’t fast, but I think I got a full revolution on each direction that was sound and proper. I’m so thrilled !!

During breaks he investigated “scary” spots, and ended up grazing a few blades of grass in previously really threatening places, so I’m hopeful than we’ll soon be able to concentrate on proper work for good. Next report, tomorrow !

A brutal and unexpected change, or when to cowboy up and adapt

The first week of April has been a kick in the gut and Dandy and I had to suck it in, adapt, and bounce back. I won’t go into the sordid details but a very nasty fight emerged from the lady who was boarding him (over a remark and request I had about his massive weight loss) and within 48h he was transferred to another yard. The swap itself was done under high stress, the air brimming with human conflict. He had to trek through an inusual route, and load into a tiny one-horse, boxlike, trailer, alongside a highway. He went through the whole thing with absolutely zero concern or alert, just walked up to the trailer, sniffed it, and up the ramp. I let him rest for a few seconds then backed him up and rubbed his forehead. Then I slipped under the chest bar, and from the inside of the trailer asked him to come all the way in. A sugar cube mid-way, and he was in.

I arrived at the new stable to find him standing statue like and staring rigid at his surroundings, a lady gripping the rope right under his chin. I walked up to her, said thank you, and got a hold of the lead, a good 1.5m from the snap. He visibly relaxed, though still concerned and alert. I led him straight to the large sand uncovered arena and put him to work right there. Forward, bend, back-up, getting softness, we worked and worked until he was connected to me and responding well. His first night was uneventful and the introduction to the herd went well.

Dandy05avr17-02

The new place is 3 (THREE !!) minutes from home, and that’s amazing. I can pretty much visit him everyday if I fancy to. That’s a real luxury. The place isn’t without challenges though. First of all, it’s an “English” type place, so our Western garb and my helmetless riding is attracting attention, not always positive. The general approach seems pretty yank-and-crank there, and though I know way better than offering anything but total neutrality and zero opinion or advice, my own relaxed and focused handling can be perceived as offensive to the less effective riders (it’s happened before !). And Dandy seems quite concerned about the new surroundings so far, especially with the one pasture facing the long side of the arena, where a bunch of mysterious (to him) species graze. Sheep, lamas, spotted deer, and… a cow !

Dandy05avr17-03As you can see he needs much feeding to make up for some rather drastic loss

Dandy06Avr17-01

Dandy05avr17-01I’ve ridden him twice so far in the new arena, and he’s been quite reactive both times, but we kept our lose rein “where do you want to go” routine and worked through the rough spots. The alarming presence of the livestock next door got him into a weird state of “hightened awareness”, and rather than the “dull” feel than he sometimes offers, it was like I was riding a finished reiner, with helicopter-like responsiveness. I had a massive stop, and some pretty impressive progress on the spin. We ended up on a good note and put him up for a one week vacation as we’re leaving town for the holidays. Upon our return he’ll get a good trim from our new “natural trimmer”, stay tuned for the report !

A long overdue update

More than 10 days without a Dandy update, and so much stuff has gone on I don’t even know where to start. I’m gonna try and use the available pictures by date to get a decent chronology out of the unused material.

Oh, maybe I need to start by saying I got a new saddle. I swap so often that the info could be totally irrelevant IF this one wasn’t there to stay. That statement sent my closest friends into a fit of hysterical laughter, and in all truth I can’t blame them. BUT, the new addition to the tack room is a masterpiece of saddlecraft, and the elusive “Graal” I’ve been searching for for years. Please meet the Continental Pullman 101 Reiner :

PullmanReiner101-01New price for those Pullman babies roam around the 5K mark, and needless to say I grabbed this used and an absolute bargain. Although I’ve gone through literally dozens of saddles in the past three years, I can reasonably safely say that the quest is over.

On March 24th, we had a good little session. Marla was there but considering the hectic quality of her filming, I asked her to shoot a few pictures.

Dandy24Mar17-06The soft face of my sweet natured boy

Dandy24Mar17-01Our forward has improved a lot

Dandy24Mar17-02And now the main aim is to lift his front end

Dandy24Mar17-03He’s always been quite soft on the bit, and has softened yet

Dandy24Mar17-04Engagement is better and he’s soft, but still tends to drop his head and the front end along with it

Dandy24Mar17-05I love the fact he has so much feel on the bit

Dandy24Mar17-09

He’s still not found of spurs, as you can see by the tail action

Dandy24Mar17-10

Dandy24Mar17-11I’m liking his attitude here

We’re still working on a lot of different things now. The stop is one, and it’s getting pretty darn good. With no sliders on and in rough dirt, he nearly always stops sharp, and in some cases engages his rearend enough to create drag marks

Dandy01Avr17-01

Neck reining, rollbacks, picking up leads, spins, are also on our list, and progressing well. As of tomorrow Dandy is going to be transferred to a board 3 minutes (THREE !) from my place, and about 6 from my work place, so I should get more opportunities to work with him.

Dandy24Mar17-07

Dandy24Mar17-08I love the soft eyes and quiet mouth. He’s at ease in his own skin

Dandy01Avr17-02At the end of the winter, horses can lose quite a bit of weight, especially young, still growing colts…

Dandy03Avr17-03April 2nd, getting ready for a trail outting

We spent nearly 3 hours on the trail, a party of 4. Dandy was extremly good the vast majority of the time. Despite a lot of cars, bikes, dogs, bridges, etc, he kept himself together remarkably well. At one point on the way back I thought he was losing the plot, but he self calmed within 3 seconds and came right back down. I think he got sore in his feet (being unshod) during the ride, and built up some annoyance due to both this and the temptation to eat all the fantastic grass we were walking on. During about 10 minutes he had jigging fits and had to be bent to a walk again and again.

Dandy03Avr17-01But a grazing pause changed his frame of mind from grumpy to blissful

Dandy03Avr17-02And the ride home was uneventful

To have a glimpse of the challenges this route holds, you can watch this few seconds clip

A session in the shank bit

Dandy19Mar17-01Today my beautiful boy Dandy got to school a little in a shank bit. It’s a milder, not very long shank, Myler mouthpiece, that I used on my Portugese cross before. Dandy had had *one*, ten minute, session in an Argentine bit before. The Argentine *looks* shorter and less intimidating than the Myler, but putting them side by side I realized the length and position of the canon in relation to the shanks was absolutely identical, so because I like the Myler mouthpiece, I went with the latter.

Dandy19Mar17-03He experimented a lot with it, curling himself up as you can see here (but in motion), trying various ways to pack it, and hold himself with it. Of course, I kept my hands even slowler and steadier than I would normally do, tried to put zero unintentional pressure on it, and give immediate release when he did soften to contact. We worked at all three gaits with it, and I can say he must have looked mighty nice, because there was a lot of self carriage, a good deal of the time. We worked at lateral flexion, AND neckreining, so basically we explored two opposite ways to respond to that bit, giving laterally, or yielding to the neck rein, in the opposite direction. I have to say the bit had him very engaged and focused and willing to cooperate. The stop was sharp as tack and the back-up speedy, once he understood the concept.

Dandy19Mar17-02I think it’s always nice to see them with their “grown-up” look, without a browband, just the clean outlining of the one-ear headstall. I think is expression is still a little puzzled, but not worried. He’s just learning something new.

The arena was extremely cluttered with jumping poles as their was a friendly jumping challenge going on in our stables today, so we had to navigate around a lot of stuff and couldn’t school properly or at much length, but the response I got was very decent and encouraging. We ended up with spins, or slow pivots as they are now, it was all but pretty, but Dandy being as smart as he is, I reckon if we always work on the spins right before calling it quits, he might start loving them pretty soon 😉

One year in. Now let’s have fun failing !

Dandy’s been with me roughly a year, and has changed enormously during that time. Our bond runs very deep, the mutual trust is big and lets us conquer just about all we undertake. I had my kid make a little video of us schooling at the trot the other day. The vid was rather awkward and jerky due to the 8 yr old camera-girl, but overall I thought the colt looked pretty well balanced and soft, and was rather self-satisfied with it. Then I emailed a trainer whose newslater I’ve been reading for some years, kinda just to test how “real” the guy is (as in “will he answer real life questions with anything but selling equipment ?”). I sent a very simple question about picking the colt’s shoulders up, and the relevance of maybe a different bit (I admit I was setting him up there, as the man does offer tack for sale, saddles, bits, a few gadgets like martingales, etc). Along with my email, I sent the link to that little video. Now if I want to be perfectly honest, I feel a little ashamed as I realize I was somwhat smug about it. When I spotted his answer in my inbox shortly after, I was already sort of patting myself on the back, anticipating some praise about how good my colt looks working, for his age… God/life (always useful to have an alternative for the skeptics among us) has a funny way of kicking you in the shins when you’re starting to sin by pride, and I admit it was well deserved. To my surprise, here’s the guy answer (he started by mispelling my name and patronizing me about how to shoot a decent clip, but that’s beside the point).

He wrote : “Just looks to me like a horse who isn’t used to doing anything other than trotting along. Start doing sharp turns, stops and rollbacks and his head will naturally come up and he’ll carry himself better.As for the bit, as long as he stays light, no need to go to a thinner one.”

OUCH. I’m getting better though. Really. Actually my own reaction even surprised me. I didn’t think “what a jerk”, or anything along that line. I sat there for a minute, feeling the sting sharply on my ego. But already at the back of my brain was the thought “he’s right. It’s extremely blunt and my feelings could be (are) hurt, however he’s absolutely right”. What have I done with this horse so far ? Well, a hell of a good job when it comes to proving him that humans are good and reliable, safe and to be trusted. However, from  a variety point of view, or recent schooling has been repetitive, underwhelming and totally lacking in ambition. I’ve been focusing on getting the colt “looking” good, meaning moving in a certain (sometimes false) frame, rather than aiming for true performance and expension.

Dandy10Mar17-02

I kinda of suspected it, but every day that passes confirms the fact that getting older *does* have its upsides. Namely, we’re less stupid at 40 than we were at 20, at least it should work like that. So I spent no time feeling sorry for that brutal opinion, I just got motivated to turn it around. Yesterday I went to see Dandy and hopped on with the intention to do something fresh, different, and useful. After a short warm up I started working on the stop. I mean, a sharp one. I trotted the colt along the “fence” (just a very thin white rope) that runs around our tiny grassy arena), and when he was giving good energy and feeling connected, I’d say whoa, and then would turn him into the fence and ask him to roll into the opposite direction at the trot. That very soon got his interest, even got him a little edgy, but globally he did pretty well. When he did I change things and loped him around on a lose rein for relaxation, then picked up the stop/roll-back exercise again. Soon we were going along the fence at the lope. At which point I felt for him with the reins, said whoa…. and he ran right through my hands. Two years ago I had a similar experience with my previous boy, Joli. I remember getting extremely upset, the whole thing turning absolutely ugly, and going back home in tears and feeling rotten for days. I had failed my horse ! OMG, I had actually gotten mad, pulled on his face out of anger, kicked him in the gut and gotten no progress whatsoever. He had finished the session wary and defensive, and it took weeks to get him to soften to the bit again. BAD. BAD. Horrible all the way around. Yesterday none of that happened. The first time Dandy ran through my hands, I just turned him around the next stride (struggling some as he was really set on keeping on loping straight), asked him for another stop. He did some half assed halt, I turned him around, he took off with no intention to stop anytime soon. Said whoa and opened my legs, he kept on hammering forward, totally mentally disconnected from me. Was hell going to break lose ? Had I failed again ? The huge difference this time was *my approach* to the whole thing. This time I absolutely did not mad or sad or upset about it. I remained totally cool and factual. I just set my hands very solid, got him stopped (he literally ran into the bit), held until he started tucking his chin (which took several seconds) and kicked him in the gut pretty hard until he was backing up. FAST. Once he did I threw the reins down and stopped my leg. And let him stand there, panting, thinking. I stroke his mane (that means “all is well”). Then I thought for a second about the next thing to do. I put him forward at a slower trot, got him soft, said whoa. He stopped dead in his tracks and softened immediately into a back-up. I immediately dropped the reins. I got another similarly instant stop and back-up from another trot. Then I let him stand for about a minute, and walked off to the opposite side of the arena where we worked on steering off my legs at the trot, then lope, with zero pressure on his face. Then we trotted and loped some circles looking for softness and some collection (frame). Then we went back to working at the stop and back-up, and guess what that was vastly improved with a horse understanding and complying. I decided to make a short from the saddle that shows him loping around for a full lap, with dangling reins, then stopping off voice and legs and backing up. You can see it HERE. That was so good that after it we took a break, then just played with some spins for a minute (very little pressure, just him getting the idea of moving off the leg), and finally strolled over the whole arena. I dismounted and played with the “head down” cue we’d been practicing some days before. I snapped some pics. He stayed absolutely put and relaxed the whole time.

Dandy17mar17-01That gorgeous butt

Dandy17Mar17-02Followed me around totally soft and relaxed, went to untack, and put him back in his pasture with his buddies. Did the whole session looks perfect and smooth and a blazing success ? Hell, no ! Were there a few seconds of pulling and resisting and kicking and me clearly meaning “that’s not it, buddy” ? Sure, yes. But there was NO anger or frustration involved, and none of the “correcting” I did was meant to release any resentment, because I felt none. He’d made a mistake. Probably because I’d made some, prior. Not being clear enough in my request maybe, or timing off, bad cue, or all of the above. But rather than wasting any time feeling sorry over it we just went right back to work and made it right. I think the brilliance of the “horsemanship” approach is to allow the horse to feel safe enough to experiment and, yes, make mistakes. But we have to extend this tolerance to ourselves ! And we (I) also have to stop wanting every darn second to look pretty or picture worthy, because that’s not what real life is. Life is about prettiness *and* ugliness. Yes, try to keep the latter to a minimum, but it is sometimes necessary to reaching the former. Because my discipline of choice as an equistrian is one that is plagued with abuse (reining), I think I have become a little paranoid about not physically imposing things on a horse, and focusing on “changing their thought”. But the naked truth is that when you work mainly with negative reinforcement, as I do, sometimes it takes a pretty strong degree of applying a stimulus before it gets them to change their idea and pick yours. This horse has been historically difficult to bend at the rib cage. A few days ago I decided I meant it, even if that involved some pulling on the face and kicking a bit harder in the ribs. Guess what, the very same day I cowboyed up about it I got nice and consistent yields. I had just happened to be ineffective before. I think the crux of horsemanship is to navigate the fine line between empathy and effectiveness. Yes feel and fairness are absolutely crucial. But to be fair to the horse AND yourself, you have to be effective. And sometimes it takes a bit more than you’d like to reach a change. And that, as most things in this walk of life, is more about working on ourselves than working on the horse 😉

Dandy11Mar17-02

Dandy11Mar17-03

 

First larger group outting : he’s a rockstar !

Took Dandy for his first outting with 5 other horses. First we left our stables as a group or three, two very seasoned horses leading and me leading him in hand behind. It’s a 10 minute walk to the meeting point with the other riders, walking along the highway (with cars and trucking zooming by at 130 km/h !), above the river on a threatening  bridge, and *underneath* the highway, under an even scarier bridge. Dandy took all of that in stride, and aside from a mini heart attack in the first 10 yards, he behaved perfectly.

Later on we walked on roads, crossed small villages with barking dogs and farting lawn mowers, crossed more impressive and noisy stone bridges. He felt concerned about 3 times, and borderline overwhelmed twice, but every single time he regained his composure and stayed *under his OWN control* without me having to do anything more than putting a hand on his withers to say “it’s ok, I got you, you can do this”.

The vast majority of the ride looked like THIS (video clip).

Because he’s been educated to leave other horses alone, he stays at a polite distance of them. He draws confidence from the herd (he would never have been that chilled taking the same route by himself) but is very content following at the back. And because he’s short and has a lazy pace, he needs to make up the distance at the trot every few minutes. Lots of horses gets antsy as the group moves further apart, but he trots along to catch back with them with his nose on the ground and without the slightest desire to overheat, run, etc.

Dandy11Mar17-01.jpg

I can’t say of proud I was of him at the end of that ride. If I’d been a horse, I would have been very challenged by it, but at not yet 3 yrs of age he rose to the task and owned it like a pro (he actually was more relaxed and quieter than several of the older and way more seasoned horses in the group…). Way to go Babyyyy ❤