Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. ~ Thomas Merton

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Done!

I taped my L3 online audition. I planned it for a week, practiced the elements and on Friday I did the audition in one take. I was so pleased with how relaxed I felt, Cricket was tuned-in and responsive and how everything just flowed.

The choreography and the obstacle course worked perfectly. I hit all the compulsories and used all the required obstacles. The only thing that might hold us back is not enough circle game and not enough transitions.

I discovered a rope burn abrasion on Cricket's left hind pastern. That may have contributed to her unwillingness to pick up and sustain a right lead canter. Really, I don't care. If I have to do it again to receive a L3 pass, I'm okay with that (I think).

I'm sending my paperwork and the YouTube link to the Parelli office on Monday morning. I'll post the results as soon as I receive them.

So here is the video:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I found this picture on flickr. The photo was titled .....Maybe success lies in your next try! The photo was followed by this quote:
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” ~ Thomas Alva Edison.
This is exactly what I need to keep in mind when playing with Cricket.

I was so unsure about our session on Monday. I tried to end things on my terms. Not to be demanding and not to win at all costs, but rather in an effort to convince Cricket that I am a person of significance. I discovered this idea reading a fellow PNH student's blog. She posted some notes from a lesson with a PNH instructor. So many of the things she is learning with her mare are the things I need for more successful interactions with my mare.

Last night's session was about convincing Cricket of my significance. I actually started the session on the 6' savvy string. In checking her HQ disengage, I noticed how sloppy it had become. After a little tune up, I asked her for a circle, just at the walk. She was very unsure at first so I just supported her until she was walking a soft circle. I asked her for the trot and she offered a beautiful flexed, let loose trot. I held the string with the lightest touch and she maintained a drape in the line between us.

I switched to the 45' line attached to her halter. I kept the line short so I could influence her but gave her the benefit of the doubt in using a lighter line that is more comfortable to carry. I started at the trot. It began with some nice relaxation but then it sort of fizzled into her pokey trot. I asked for a little more juice and she trotted out better. All this was very soft, with slack in the line.

The first one or two canter transitions were soft and I rewarded just a few steps of canter. Then she decided she was done with cantering and only offered her stilted, jarring transitions and her crappy 4-beat canter. How to read this? My gut feeling was that she was asserting her dominance and controlling the game. Okay, you wanna play? Me too!

I decided the rules were simple: canter one full lap with slack in the line. As much as I wanted her soft lope, I was willing to accept anything that wasn't a trot as long as she maintained gait and connection. Each time she dropped gait, I drew her in and redirected her. That wasn't producing the desired result so we changed it up a little and it became "tag the shoulder."

Holy Cow! That mare can MOVE! We got some lovely, high-powered movement through the shoulder, with all her weight on her hindquarters. After a little bit of the "cutting game," I sent her off in the canter. It was rhythmic, relaxed and connected. I had the line draped over my hand. True to the original rules, after a full lap (which was actually a lap and a half because I disengaged her behind me), I stopped her, dropped to the ground and took all pressure off.

Oh how I wanted to do it again. Mother Nature intervened to snap me out of my predatorial, direct line thinking. As I was dwelling, a storm started rolling in. I sat on the ground as long as I could. Cricket licked and chewed, nibbled the grass, licked and chewed some more and then went to grazing in earnest.

Our next play session is on Thursday. We shall see what sort of impression last night's session had on my darling Principessa.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is It Really Asking Too Much?

There are days when I'm not too sure about all this. I feel like one of those parents who say, "I feed you, I house you, I clothe you, this is not too much to ask." I wish I could use the same logic on Cricket.

In preparing our L3 on-line audition, I've been having trouble getting Cricket to maintain the canter on the circle. As this is one of the compulsories, I need to figure out what is going on and fix it.

Yesterday, instead of working on the actual audition, I decided to separate out this one element and have a bit of a "come to Jesus" meeting with Cricket about cantering. My little mare is one heck of a challenge. Her unassuming demeanor is simply a smoke screen to lull everyone around her into a false sense of security and complacency. She can play an unsuspecting human with all the skill and finesse of a concert violinist. She has alpha down to an art form. And she manages to get everyone wrapped tightly around her little hoof. It's amazing. She could host seminars on "Getting Exactly What You Want From Anyone, Any Time and Have Everyone Loving You For It." I'm not kidding.

So I put her on the 22' line so I could be effective. I took her out into the paddock where we are going to be filming. I did everything I know to get her energy up and her tuned into the game. Once we established the canter, I noticed how she was pulling on the line. And I mean PULLING. Once or twice she had me off balance. Cricket does not need 22' of line in order to balance at the canter. She can canter on a 12' line. I realized we'd lost our rhythm, relaxation and connection. I asked her to canter until she could do so with slack in the line. She never even once offered it to me. And then she decided she was done cantering.

I finally stopped her when I could string a couple of strides together. I realize I went too long but I did not want to reward the pulling on the line. It's not like she was winded. Yes, she was sweated up a bit but not much. She was breathing deep but she wasn't winded. She stopped with immediate licking and chewing.

I have absolutely no idea what to do next. I have no idea if we accomplished something or if we took steps backwards. I have a feeling this is much more about emotional fitness than it is anything else. Weather permitting, we're going to do it again tonight. I'm going to try using a neck collar and the 45' line.

Never-ending self improvement has come to be never-ending self preservation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Under Pressure

When the official assessment process changed from prescribed task lists to free-form auditions I thought this was the best idea ever. No more drilling a task until you could capture a single flawless manever, completely dereft of life and soul. The auditions were an opportunity to evaluate savvy. I've long believed the execution of a task did not prove savvy. Rather when the savvy was there, the task was just a natural result. Now we had an assessment process that supported that idea.

A few snags in my groundwork (and a major snag in my riding) have kept me from feeling like I was ready to audition. I finally made the decision to tape my L3 On-Line audition and step outside my comfort zone. It's not the video taping that bothers me - I passed all but one task of my L2 via video assessment. But that was with a PNH instructor with whom I have a very good relationship. The idea of strangers assessing my very intimate relationship with my horse is unnerving to me.

I spent last week planning my audition. Not scripting it to the footfall, but sketching out my obstacles, reviewing the compulsories and matching the requirements to Cricket's particular skills. This past weekend I did a dry run in front of a stationary camera. I taped two sessions on Saturday and one session on Sunday.

Some things I have learned:
  • A leader needs a plan. I had a plan for the obstacles but I didn't have a clear idea of how the whole thing would flow.
  • Some things take longer than you think they do. Ten minutes is not very long. In fact it's almost the blink of an eye.
  • Test a level below where you're training. Initially I had some L4 elements in my audition plan. Those have been removed. The pressure of taping is no place to ask something of my mare that is not within her comfort zone.
  • I plan, Cricket laughs. Several times during my session I got the "why should I do that?" look from Cricket. My replies were often insufficient for my darling LBI/E (who was very introverted during taping).
  • If at first you don't succeed, revise your definition of success. What I envisioned as a good obstacle course was not, in fact, a good obstacle course. The flow I imagined was not very flowing. Instead of pushing Cricket to meet my idea of an audition, I have revised my vision of our audition to better suit what she can offer.
My biggest lesson from all of this: Simplicity is the best path. My audition won't knock anyone's socks off. It may not even be enough to pass L3. But it will have a sweet dun mare with ears pricked forward offering soft, willing movement and responding with a "sure, Mom, if that's what you want." And that's enough, at least for now.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Just Keep Swimming

Sometimes it's all you can do. Just keep swimming. Just keep going. Just keep trying. No matter the obstacles, the difficulties, the challenges - just keep going, meeting them head on and dealing with them.

Underlying all my challenges with Cricket is the persistent issue of her head shaking. For those who might be unfamiliar with headshaking, it can be defined as:

. . . a condition where a horse will flip his head in reaction to sunlight, wind, movement, stress, etc. The horse can display mild annoyance to the sensations, or he may exhibit sheer panic and extreme pain.
While there seems to be a general consensus on what headshaking looks like, there is little real understanding of its cause or causes.

Cricket first began exhibiting headshaking symptoms in 2004. I began researching the matter and trying to find a trigger for Cricket's headshaking. I tried to find some link between episodes but there just weren't any correlations. Time of day, location, weather, tack - it just didn't seem to matter. I had her checked by two vets and her farrier. I had her teeth done and I had her adjusted by an equine chiropractor. Still, the headshaking persisted.

After moving to a new boarding facility in 2005, Cricket's headshaking just kind of faded away. This past spring it came back. It's been going on for almost 18 months now. It is the most puzzling and frustrating thing I've ever encountered. A few things I know for sure:
  • Cricket is not being defiant or naughty.
  • This is not a reaction to some other physical discomfort.
  • Her headshaking is not a result of ill-fitting tack.
  • While more pronounced under saddle, she headshakes during groundwork and out in the field.
In ruling out different possible causes, I came to one sure conclusion. Cricket's headshaking is a true pain response to some unknown cause. And if my mare is hurting, I need to figure out why and fix it. So here we go, swimming through murky waters, piecing together seemingly unrelated pieces of information, trying desperately to solve this puzzle.
I had pretty much ruled out the generally accepted causes of headshaking. Unless Cricket was a true idiopathic headshaker, there had to be some other explanation.
At the start of my journey into this puzzle, I hypothesized that Cricket's headshaking was a result of vaccinosis. I've rejected traditional vaccination protocols but last spring, I slipped and gave her four vaccines in one fell swoop. Last fall I treated her with a homeopathic remedy to counteract the vaccinosis. While it seemed to alleviate the symptoms, it wasn't a complete cure. So while the vaccines may have triggered the problem, there was still something else going on.
Where to now? In the back of my mind, I remembered Linda Parelli saying something about headshaking as a stereotypic behavior, a stable vice if you will. Hmm, how interesting. On a whim, I put "headshaking" in the search engine on the Savvy Club website. The following, a response by Linda to a student's question, popped up:
With the nervous system, stress can have a major effect on it. I believe that the stress uses nutrients and in these cases those nutrients then create a deficiency which leads to symptoms. . . Stress leads to so many illnesses in horses, I really don't think people have any idea how bad it is. It's interesting too that certain horsenalities seem to be more prone to this, it seems to be the ones who tend to hold their stress inside. I've seen early symptoms of it where it looks like a kind of tic that appears the moment the horse starts to feel stressed . . .
Hmm, how very interesting. I know Linda isn't a vet or an expert but still . . . What if Cricket's headshaking is a physical pain response to a perceived stress? Cricket tends to be very internal but not in that "suck it up and deal with it" kind of way. Cricket has very decided opinions about what she will and will not tolerate and she does little to accommodate that which she finds uncomfortable or unprofitable.
So I've taken Cricket's headshaking and re-framed it as an unconscious response to a perceived stress. Makes sense. Vaccines are a major system stress. Being ridden, especially by a novice rider, can be very stressful. Learning is stressful. Upsets in the herd hierarchy are stressful. Hmm, seems to make sense.
The struggle now is to figure out just how you help a horse deal with stress. It's not like therapy or yoga are viable options. So what's the answer? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reflections on Leadership

Sometimes the universe pauses in it's conspiracy against me and offers me a ray of hope, a glimpse of the positive, a bit of a silver lining.

Okay, maybe the whole "conspiracy against me" thing is a little dramatic. But isn't that how it feels sometimes? That no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, things just don't get any better? I know it's often a matter of perspective and if I can pull back a little, I can see that the clouds are not so gray as they first appear.

In yesterday's post, I talked about creating willing obedience in Cricket. I posted the question to one of my email discussion groups and received some awesome feedback. One person wrote:
I would say some of the ways to get obedience are that you have to be supremely confident, focused and project that your ideas are GREAT ideas and you are going to show how good it will be together. If she protests in whatever way, you need to firmly, but fondly, say "try it, you'll like it." You must have an end in mind and if she offers anything remotely like what your end in, you should thank her.

Imagine what you are asking is the most important thing in the whole world. That is how focused you must be. Feel inside your bones that nothing will keep you from achieving it and do not be dissuaded by a little 'irritation' from your mare if she doesn't like your idea. Again, don't get mad, just stay positive and firm.

Do this for short spurts, because you must maintain your energy, focus and respond to her. If you reward her for small efforts and keep it interesting, she will soon be offering more. First, though, you have to overcome her resistance and to do that you have to prove you have good ideas.
Hmm . . . sounds an awful lot like LEADERSHIP. And here's where the universe smiles on me - I received my Savvy Club Gold shipment for July. The Mastery Manual is titled Natural Leadership. Talk about "when the student is ready, the teacher appears."

Some of the stuff in the manual is familiar - things about herd hierarchy and how horses understand leadership. There are a few things I disagree with - for example, I don't think that "dominant" and "alpha" are synonymous. But there is an awful lot that gives me something to lick and chew over. The quizzes are my favorite - asking questions that cause me to reflect on my leadership skills and abilities and the balance between love, language and leadership. Rather than just saying, "my horse loves me," questions are posed that ask me to explain how I know she loves me and what that means in the balance of our relationship.

I am excited that this particular manual has come to me at this particular moment in my horsemanship journey. Parelli ROCKS!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Experimentation and Reevaluation

This picture was taken at the spring clinic with Kelly Sigler, 3* Licensed Parelli Instructor. Kelly didn't bring any of her own horses so I offered Cricket for the riding portion of the Advanced L2 clinic. Pictured with Kelly and Cricket is Beau, the rescue horse from the Franklin, TN Parelli Celebration.

Cricket was an awesome demo horse for the clinic participants. Everything Kelly asked of her, Cricket did. She got a little ticky at one point but Kelly was able to manage her and Cricket settled right down, accepting Kelly's leadership and direction.

I'm in a constant connumdrum with Cricket. I know she is too much horse for me. I've know this for a very long time. But I just cannot seem to part with her. It's been suggested, by several instructors, that I ride a different horse and maybe find someone to ride Cricket to help us through our sticky spots.

I've tried riding other horses. I don't enjoy it. My most recent experiment was riding a nice 25 yr old "been there, done that" mare. She's a sweet old girl who tolerates just about anything. I rode her last week and it was awful. I didn't feel like I had any real communication with her. I didn't enjoy the way she moved. Almost as soon as I was mounted up, I wanted to get off. I think I trotted her two laps around the round pen and dismounted. She didn't do anything wrong - she just didn't feel right.

So I've come to the decision that Cricket and I are just going to have to muddle our way through our issues. I have a young girl at the barn who may start riding Cricket - under the direction of a fellow PNH student and riding instructor. The young girl wants to jump and she's a secure and confident rider. I think she might be a good choice for giving Cricket some experience taking a rider over fences. It's not ideal, but then again nothing in my journey with Cricket has been even close to ideal.

As I've been mulling over the situation, I think I've finally figured out exactly what I need to do. I'm just not sure how to get there. I need Cricket to become willingly obedient. In order to feel safe and to build my confidence, I need my mare to be obedient to my requests. Not robotic, certainly not tuned out - but definately obedient. Now, the quest becomes how do you cause a supremely self-confident, LB mare to become obedient?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How Time Flies

Yesterday was Cricket's birthday. My beautiful girl turned 8 years old. I cannot believe it, I really cannot. I gave her cookies and sang her "Happy Birthday." I don't know that she was impressed with the song but the cookies are always welcome.

I asked her if she got her brain in the mail. She stared at me and blinked. My friend Becky swears that when her Thoroughbred gelding turned 8, he all of a sudden got his brain. I've been long awaiting Cricket's 8th birthday in the hopes that her maturity might kick in and we might finally be able to make better progress. Maybe 8 is only magical for Thoroughbred geldings.

My friend Elizabeth came out and we had a pretty low key play session. I put Cricket back on the 45' line as a neck rope. I am having so much fun playing like this with her! I'm slowly chipping away at the problems I've created in our groundwork. Cricket is showing more life and light in our groundwork. She's tried to leave a couple of times, something she never did on the 22'. Just adding some drag to the rope has caused her to rethink and reconnect. I've gotten some good lick & chew moments after she "bolts" and I stop her. I'm feeling more connection from her and this is a good thing. I'm also getting more positive drive and draw on the figure 8.

During a figure 8 around two lying down barrels, she offered to jump one. I took her offer and asked her to jump one and then the other. The first time through she skirted both barrels but the second time through, she jumped clear over the center of each one. Too cool!

We ended with some easy dwell and rapport time. Just hanging out and finding all her good itchy spots. I hope Cricket enjoyed her birthday as much as I did.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Pendulum Swings

I wonder if there will ever come a day when fear and lack of confidence stop biting me in the butt. Sometimes I think we've conquered the demons and then there are the days that remind me we still have the proverbial "miles to go before we sleep."

I cannot look at this in short strokes. My journey with Cricket has to be measured in months and even years. When I look back on everything we've accomplished, I know we are taking more steps forward than back. But it's those backward steps that seem to stick out the most.

This is where I most need to work on my discipline and emotional confidence.

I rode Cricket on Friday evening. I had gone to watch some friends take a jumping lesson. I want to learn to jump. It feels like flying and I love the sensation. I went to the barn after the lesson rather than just feed and go home, I took advantage of the lovely evening and decided to ride my horse.

There was nothing particularly bad about the ride. But I managed to ruin everything good by focusing on everything that wasn't letter perfect. Instead of concentrating on the basics and working on the patterns, I pushed myself to do things for which I wasn't prepared. I caused Cricket to loose confidence in my leadership. Ugh. Will I ever get this right?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I've been very lazy about dragging out my saddle and actually riding my horse. With the temperature and humidity both approaching 100, there just isn't the energy to lug out a saddle and get it on the horse. It's easier to toss a bareback pad on her or just jump on nekkid (the horse, not me - it's a family barn, after all). Add to the mix my increased balance and confidence thanks to two years of Pilates (Tina ROCKS!) and it's just funner to ride bareback. But it's not getting me where I need to go.

So last Monday, my resolve strengthened by an unseasonably cool evening, I actually pulled out my saddle in order to have a "proper ride."

I started our session with a little grazing time. Cricket is on a dry lot all day long and I have found this little ritual helps me ease out of "work day" mode and it gives her a chance to have a little smackerel before we start our real play. I often incorporate a few leadership elements: don't pull on the rope, move to another pile when I ask, etc.

Cricket was very resistant to leaving the grass and heading to the arena. She was dragging on the rope and diving for grass instead of following me. I know this is important but I kind of brushed over it.

Once in the arena, I began our ground play session. Cricket was very introverted - much more than normal. Hmm, how interesting. I took as much time as she needed to lick and chew. I spent what seemed an eternity mirroring her while I waited. She was very lazy about yielding her shoulder. Hmm, how interesting.

I saddled her up and we started a session of follow the rail. I am working on developing the patience for pattern work. As my PNH instructor says, horses don't get bored, humans do. Every horse understands patterns but the human often lacks the patience and dedication to follow through until the horse understands that it is in fact a pattern.

After some walking the rail and corners game, I asked Cricket to trot. We are still having head shaking issues. They are drastically reduced from last year but the problem is not fully resolved. We had some good transitions before the head twitching started back. I checked my position, made sure I was riding balanced and properly engaged and just continued to ask for transitions until she smoothed out and started offering some relaxation. I am finally developing the confidence to ask for and ride a forward posting trot with a casual rein.

All and all I have to say it was a great session. Her head shaking is not as intense as it was even three months ago. In reflecting on it, I can see that I failed to establish proper leadership from our grazing time and that affected the entire session. I need to tune up her shoulder yield and remind her that she is to sit on her butt and move her shoulder, not spin from the middle. I need to ride her longer. I think a longer session of riding until she truly relaxes - through her whole body and mind - may do wonders for the head shaking.