Sunday, June 14, 2009

Victory, finally!

We have conquered the scary outdoor arena. I was pretty full of despair that we'd EVER ride ANYWHERE outside my barn's little indoor, but by Jove we've done it.

I've been working on this very clear stop from Mugwump for about four rides now. Basically, to put a good woah on a green horse, she squeezes the crest by the withers, THEN sits deep, picks up the reins and just pulls and holds til the horse stops. Later she adds a verbal woah to replace the squeeze. Dixie's got a sort of sense that when I say woah she ought to think about petering to a halt, so I started religiously going squeeze-woah-pull. She got no release whatsoever til she stopped. The squeeze was a really clear pre-cue, the woah, sitting deep, and reins let her know stopping is not an option but a requirement.

The first ride she hated me. The second ride she had clearly "gotten" it and stopped on just the squeeze-"woah." By the third ride she was bored with stopping, so we went back to locked hands to get the point across. Fourth ride she seemed to realize that woah means WOAH, no arguing. Today we headed outside!

We did a couple tiny circles and woahs, then headed off to the Scary Corner of the arena. When I turned her to head back, she got really big in front and light. I kinda wanted to cry, but I sat down deep and said real low "Easy, now, don't you dare." She walked very fast back to the gate, but by god she walked! We spun around and did it again, and again, and again. I got in a good 45 minute ride before LUNCH TIME.

They were feeding the horses outside today, and I insisted that Dixie listen to me while the feed lady was walking around dumping grain in the paddocks. I couldn't quite get Dixie's ears to focus on me, but she did actually respond quite nicely to all of my cues so I called it success.

I usually ride shortly before the horses' lunch (dinner?) time. The BO quite politely thinks I'm crazy, but here's my theory. If I can get my horse to pay attention to me even when every other horse in the barn is screaming for dinner, then I'm building some really valuable priorities in her head. Most training is just many many repetitions of small successes. I want to keep my horse listening to ME even when she doesn't really want to, when there's something else way more exciting/scary/fun going on. So we ride for 30 or 60 minutes, until the BO starts climbing in the hayloft throwing hay down into the stalls and the help is wheeling grain carts out. That's when she really absolutely MUST listen to me and focus on me. Once I get a couple good repetitions of something out of her, we stop and she EATS.

Obviously, when we finally pick up the pace, I'll have to stop letting her eat directly after a ride. But it's a good exercise so far!

I guess if I can repeat this good behavior outside a couple more times - and the woah stays solid - I will start adding some speed. I feel like I have been fucking around for MONTHS and making NO progress, but I think maybe I've actually just been very slowly filling in some huge holes in her training.

When I got her, she was "show broke," which meant she went straight forward as fast as possible in gait and not much else. Any leg meant go faster, she only stopped when nearby horses stopped or we approached a solid object, and she was sure that nothing good ever came from reins. I got her desensitized to legs entirely, then taught her to bend around a leg, then taught her that the bit isn't her enemy, then FINALLY got a woah on her. Probably backwards, but I had no idea I'd have so much trouble teaching woah!

I am still not ready to try a whip or spurs again. Dixie's had both of those used on her, and she's got really strong fear reactions to them while under saddle. I'd rather keep the trust I have built and gently encourage speed for a while longer. I think both whips and spurs are really useful subtle tools in the right hands, but I don't require those tools yet and I don't want to scare her.

I think I've reached a verdict on the Imus saddle too - it's just not comfortable for me. I mean, the SEAT is fantastic, and it fits her well, but I just cannot get used to the thick leather under my legs. I just can't feel her, and I don't think she can feel my legs. My NBS saddle fits surprisingly better with the different rigging, and I think I'll just keep using it for a while longer.

I don't think I'm cut out for Western saddles anymore. I use my legs as cues all the time, not just to thump with my heels to go faster. And more importantly, *I* need the feedback from feeling the horse's sides. I'm definitely going English when I get a different saddle.

Also I really missed Champ today. I think about him every time I drive to the barn, but for some reason I MISSED him so much more today. Cried off and on all day, even after such a thoroughly good ride on Dixie. :(


  1. Congratulations!

    It sounds like you've been putting some serious work into this. Stopping is one thing that's non-negotiable with a horse (whoa MEANS whoa!). It took awhile to get it into Max's head but the lesson has held (although occassionally I have to remind him).

    I've also found that using your breath and tucking your pelvis really helpd to reinforce the halt to the point where you rarely need to use reins- it took a long time to develop the breath control but it's paid off, especially since you're not messing with their mouth. Naturally there are those times where you have to use everything but for the most part, your hands don't need to do much of anything.

    Although I can ride Western, I don't really like most Western saddles for exactly the same reason as you- the contact just isn't there. Also, it feels like I'm riding in an easy chair- just too much leather going on there. :-)

    Good luck! :-)

  2. If you don't need a whip and spurs, I'm not sure why you'd ever want to - I used to use them but never do now - I figure if I can't get my point across without them then I'm doing something wrong. If your horse is afraid of them, why push the point?

    I use a different method of teaching a horse to stop (or to transition downwards in any gait), but yours seems to be working - I thing the most important thing is to be clear and consistent.

    You seem to be making good progress!

  3. Adam - thanks! I'll try holding my breath when I sit down to stop. I really work on breathing normally most of the time, because she's so sensitive. Eventually I want to stop messing with her mouth entirely, but I have to get woah as a command first.

    Kate - Whips and spurs are extensions of your leg in upper level dressage. It might take me longer than her lifetime to get to upper level dressage, but everybody needs goals! Touching the horse's lower flank with your heel or a spur reminds the horse to tuck its abs and collect. And a whip is a way better way to get impulsion than constant nagging with legs. But like I said, we don't NEED them right now, and I'm not good enough for spurs anyway. :)

  4. Funder, I don't know for sure what Adam does, but I think that a long slow EXHALE, rather than holding your breath, would be more of a signal to down-scale the energy (slow down). To help her learn the verbal cue, be sure to use it on the ground as well--when you get to a gate and she needs to stop for you to open it, say whoa--and reinforce it if necessary.

    I agree with Kate about the whip and spurs--if you don't need them, why use them? I hadn't worn a pair of spurs in 30 years, until lazy Kate. I do use a dressage whip for starting babies, because the "move forward" cue during their groundwork has been a tap from my lunge whip. But as soon as they transition to the leg, I pretty much drop it.

    Some of the new trail design saddles are a nice compromise between English and Western--less leather (and weight), more contact, and really comfortable! Most of the models are different enuf, however, that they wouldn't do for any but local/casual shows. (Check out Tucker saddles for the broadest line I've seen.)

    However....Congratulations on your successful ride. I like the feeding time theory. And your willingness to take the baby-steps necessary to get Dixie where you want her!

  5. Excellent! Stop is the first thing I want a horse to understand, no matter how long it takes to get there. I've ridden too many with iffy stops, and that can get pretty hairy in scary situations, especially when you need them to stop RIGHT NOW!

    To add to the suggestion about tucking the pelvis on the whoa...I visualize dropping my tailbone (and spine on days that need an extra WHOA!) through the horse and into the dirt. Visualizing that really helps me get a good, deep seat and stop moving with the horse. I also tighten abs and sit up TALL when cueing the whoa.

    I'm 100% with you on the western vs english saddles. I've ridden in western, quite a bit, started out in a western saddle many, many moons ago. But I prefer my English saddle. The western saddle makes me feel like I'm trapped. Too much leather and "extra stuff" there for me. I prefer bareback over any saddle at all, nice and close to the horse and feeling EVERYTHING that's going on.

  6. Great achievement.

    My young colt lives outdoors. Still, he seems to be a bit more challenging in the outdoor arena than the indoor one.

    Hard to figure. . . . maybe it's just me, anticipating trouble and sending iffy vibes. ;-)

    The Mane Point


  7. Whoop! Sorry, my bad...

    Sorry if I confused you but yes, by doing a long slow exhail, you can concentrate your weight to your pelvis and then to the horse's back. In exhailing, you have to use your diaphraigm so it's deep- it's difficult at first but comes with practice.

    Holding your breath just makes you more tense and thus rigid in the seat (I actually first learned good breath control on the rifle range when I was in the Army).

    A good way to perfect this is doing this while riding without stirrups, starting at a walk. At first you might have to pull back slightly and gently with the reins (just enough to cue them) and combine that with exhailing. After awhile, I didn't have to use the reins at all (at least when he's paying attention to me :-)).

    You mileage may vary but give it a try. :-)

  8. It sounds like you've got a good sense of your horse and your goals, congratulations! I like that one of your goals is to maintain Dixie's attention even when the whole world is eating dinner! (BTW, endurance riders will tell you that there's NOTHING wrong with feeding/watering a hot horse! Maybe wait until she's cooled off a bit to hand out the grain ration, but by all means serve up the hay and water promptly as a reward!)

    In the Western v. English debate, I think there's room for everything. I finally found the saddle of my dreams in an endurance saddle that originally was very "western-ish" but now that I've replaced the fenders with leathers it functions more "english-y". (Technical language, huh?) Don't be afraid to mess around with your saddle, change the rigging, add or subtract and make it your very own.

    It's totally understandable to be missing Champ. Some people would just shrug off the loss of a good horse--you obviously don't, and that is a good thing.

  9. There isn't anything to say that hasn't already been said.

    You may feel like you're treading water a lot, but like you said you're a Virginia Slims ad.

    "You've come a long way, baby!"

  10. I'm discovering that grief is not a "linear" path. I'm fine one day, and then something triggers it and I'm NOT fine. I talked to a friend who had lost a husband years back. I know - losing my equine soulmate is not quite like losing a beloved husband, but what she said made me feel better. She said it was 1 year before she was stable, and 3 years before she stopped thinking of him every single day. So yes, I'm expecting it to take time and I'm accepting that there are times this first year that I'm going to be total wreck. I'll take it. It's beautiful to see your relationship with Dixie blossom.


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