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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I've learned not to say "it cannot get any worse." It can. And it usually does.

I know, if I were to count my blessings they would vastly out-number my current trials. But I need a brief moment of self-pity. Just to get it out of my system so I can move on. I finally had a mini-meltdown at Pilates yesterday and that has helped a lot. It just needs to be about me for just a little while.

I'm feeling better today. Except I cannot find my KK Ultra Loose Ring snaffle. I cleaned it last year and "put it where I was sure to find it again." Of course the very notion is a virtual guarantee that I will never find that item again. Until I'm looking for something completely unrelated, months later, and discover the initial item, exclaiming "that's where that was!" Ugh!

I digress . . . I just feel like I have too many things pulling on my limited resources. And I need to decide what I want most. I am taking the opportunity to go look at another horse when I return from camp. If I decide this is something I want to do, what needs to give in order to afford the care for another horse?

I am also wrestling with my horsemanship journey. I just don't know how deeply I want to continue with Parelli right now. I'll never give up what I've learned but I think, maybe, it's time for something else. I just don't know. Maybe I don't need to think about it right now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Busy Busy Beaver

Busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.

That's the phrase that comes to mind when I look at my calendar for the next month. My hectic schedule is further complicated by the proverbial other stuff.

I have been in a lot of emotional turmoil. Cricket's recent bout of headshaking has reminded me that this is not something we cure but rather something we manage. Becky's decision to end sweet Bolder's suffering has stirred up memories of losing my Moose. There are things going on with my Dad and I'm not sure how to react.

Usually the weeks leading up to camp are filled with tack cleaning, rope washing, horse bathing and personal packing. Not so this time. Last weekend I hosted a weekend of lessons with a 1* Trainee Instructor and she's coming back in a few days to do it all over again. Next weekend I'm riding in a Centered Riding Clinic. It was an opportunity that just came up and I decided to take it. The Friday after that I leave for a four day L3/4 camp at Carol Coppinger's farm in Mt. Juliet.

What the hell was I thinking? When am I going to get everything ready? It's not really about looking pretty for camp. It's about actually having everything ready and together. Cricket needs a bath and good grooming. My saddle, brushes and ropes need to be cleaned.

Ugh! Guess I will be too busy to worry about camp. Heck, by the time I leave for camp, I'll be so worn out that I'll be too tired to be nervous about camp. Cricket and I might have our best clinic ever!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Check it Once, Check it Twice and Check it Again

As the weather warms and we move through spring and head towards summer, we get more excited about playing and riding. Often that means a play day at a neighboring farm, trail riding with friends or heading off to a clinic.

Trailering a horse should never be taken lightly. Whether you haul your own horse or entrust a friend with your beloved equine, it is important to be aware of safety.

For the Horse
Putting a horse in a "metal cave on wheels" is about as unnatural as it gets. No self-respecting prey animal would willingly put himself in a place where he couldn't run away. Teaching a horse to load with confidence is one of our major responsibilities as stewards of these amazing creatures. Even if you are content to toodle around your own property, there may come a day when you have to load and you owe it to your horse to prepare him.

My Moose was a difficult horse when it came to trailer loading. His fear and intense claustrophobia made him a danger to himself and those around him. In learning to load him, I learned a lot about loading a horse - physically, mentally and emotionally.

Some things to consider . . .
  • Can you load and unload your horse into trailers other than the one in which he normally travels? Don't wait until your broken down on the side of the road to find out your horse is terrified of a ramp or that he's afraid of a rattling stock trailer.
  • Can someone other than you load your horse?
  • Can you ask your horse to calmly unload forwards and backwards?
  • Can you ask your horse to load, unload just the hind feet and then reload? Can you load just the front feet?
  • Can you send him in without getting in the trailer? Can you lead him in?
  • Can you open the door without him trying to bolt out?
Parelli has several excellent resources for learning to trailer load your horse. My two favorites are the old Trouble Free Trailer Loading (no longer available but often on eBay) and the trailer loading segment of the Liberty and Horse Behavior pack. I'm sure there are other great resources from other horseman. The key is not just to get your horse in the trailer but to load his body, mind and heart. A horse that truly accepts the trailer does not paw, fret or bolt out.

For the Tow Vehicle and Trailer
Two years ago we arrived at fall camp only to find the trailer tires were flat. This past weekend a woman nearly lost her horse because her trailer door swung open as she turned a corner. Fortunately, in both cases, none of the horses were hurt. Trailer mishaps don't always have a happy ending. Regular maintenance as well as a thorough inspection before hitting the road might mean the difference between a near miss and a full blown tragedy.

The following list, from an article on EquiSearch, is a great checklist for maintaining your trailer.
  • As a matter of course, clean your horse trailer out after every use. Even with rubber mats, the urine and droppings will take their toll on the floorboards if they are left to sit.
  • Regularly washing the exterior of the trailer will give you the opportunity to check for rust, leaks in the roof, broken windows etc.
  • Check the wooden floorboards, the ramp or tailgate, divider etc. for signs of rot. Also check the hinges, springs and latches to make sure they are secure and in good working order.
  • Replace any parts that are rotten, broken or missing.
  • The trailer hitch itself should be kept well lubricated and should be checked for missing parts. Make sure the chains are in good repair.
  • Without the trailer jack, it would be impossible to lift your horse trailer on to the little ball on the bumper pull of your truck. Keeping it lubricated and cranking it every now and then, when it's not being used, will stop it from seizing up and becoming useless, just when you need it most.
  • The brakes should be checked every time the trailer is hitched, to make sure they are working. Regular professional maintenance is recommended.
  • Correct tire pressure will make it easier to tow the trailer and will save wear and tear on the tires. Replace any worn tires.
  • Each time you hook your horse trailer up, you should make sure the lights and turn signals work. Check the wiring and replace any bulbs that need replacing.
In addition to regular maintenance, your vehicle and trailer should be checked before every trip. From Horse & Rider magazine, Karen Hayes, DVM offers the following advice:

TIRES: check pressure and look for signs of wear in truck, trailer and spare tires
WHEELS: make sure lug nuts are tight on all wheels
HITCH: look for loose bolts, hairline cracks and other signs of wear; check for proper hookup (in conventional trailers, the socket should be seated on the ball and locked in place)
SAFETY CHAINS: make sure chains are crossed and hooked to vehicle frame (not bumper).
BREAKAWAY: check cable length - it should be shorter than your safety chains, but not so short that it'll break free when you make a tight brake cable turn. Weave the cable through a link of one chain, so it won't snag and pull free. Make sure coupler is fully plugged in.
TRUCK: check fluid levels and fill fuel tanks.
GEAR: In addition to hay, water, buckets, and other horse supplies, pack emergency equipment in your tow vehicle.

She suggests the following items for an emergency kit:

  1. Extra halter and lead rope for each horse, for off-loading in an emergency.
  2. Emergency flares and reflector triangles.
  3. Flashlight (rechargeable, with an adapter that fits vehicle cigarette lighter).
  4. Jumper cables and spare fuses.
  5. Spare tires, jack, chock blocks, torque wrench, and WD-40 for changing tires.
  6. Tool kit-crowbar, hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers.
  7. Duct tape, for covering sharp edges in a damaged trailer and other uses.
  8. Fire extinguisher. (Make sure it's pressurized.)
  9. Horse and human first-aid kits.
  10. Cell phone and phone numbers.
Final Safety Tips
USRider teamed up with nationally known large-animal rescue experts and conducted a three year study, evaluating over 200 horse trailer accidents. Based on their research, they offer 15 safety recommendations for anyone traveling with horses.
  1. Drive carefully. With operator error factors, such as driving too fast, causing the majority of trailer accidents, it’s imperative for you to be very careful and remain attentive. Drive as though you have a cup of water on the floorboard of your vehicle, and stay slightly under the speed limit to make allowances for adverse driving conditions. Double the following distance recommended for passenger cars. Maintain that distance even when cars cut in front of you.
  2. Hang up, and pay attention. Avoid talking on a cell phone while pulling a trailer.
  3. Pull over safely. If your vehicle becomes disabled, continue driving, whenever possible, until you can pull over to a safe area. Do this even if you have a flat tire, and it means destroying a wheel. Wheels can be easily replaced. Stopping on the shoulder is extremely dangerous, particularly on an interstate highway, and can put you, your horse, and emergency responders at great risk. Pull over on the grass as much as possible, away from the white line.
  4. Use your headlights. Drive with the headlights on at all times to increase your visibility.
  5. Use reflective material. Apply reflective material to the back of your trailer. If you lose trailer lighting or experience an electrical failure, this material will help other drivers see you as they approach.
  6. Replace your tires. Replace your tow-vehicle and trailer tires every three to five years regardless of mileage. Make sure that tires are rated to support more than the gross weight of the trailer and its contents. Check the air pressure in all tires (tow vehicle, trailer, and spare) at least every 30 days. Purchase a high-quality air pressure gauge, and learn how to operate it.
  7. Check your inside dually tires. If you pull your trailer with a dually truck, check the inside tires for wear. Since these tires are "hidden" behind the outside tires, they’re easy to neglect. Also check the inside tires’ air pressure. Even if an inside tire is completely flat, it’ll be supported by the outside tire, making it appear properly inflated.
  8. Leave tire-changing to the pros. Even if you know how to change a tire, don’t do it by yourself if you have an on-the-road breakdown; call for professional help. Your life is worth the time waiting for help.
  9. Maintain your vehicle and trailer. Perform regular maintenance on your tow vehicle and trailer. Have your trailer wiring inspected for uninsulated, loose, and/or exposed wires, and poor connections. This applies to old and new trailers alike. New trailers are not trouble-free; inspect them closely. Have your trailer axles serviced annually or every 6,000 miles, whichever comes first.
  10. Use ICE. Make use of the ICE program; ICE stands for "in case of emergency." This simple program is designed to help emergency responders identify victims and determine who needs to be notified. Make it easy for first responders to know who to contact for information on handling your horse: Program an entry into your cell phone called "ICE – Horse." Key in the contact information of someone with the authority to make decisions about your horse’s care, should you become incapacitated.
  11. Draw up a power-of-attorney document. In conjunction with the ICE program, initiate a power-of-attorney document with a trusted friend or relative. If you become incapacitated, this will provide for your horse’s emergency medical treatment. Also, prepare the corresponding Notice to Emergency Responders document. Keep copies of both documents in the glove box of your tow vehicle. (Both forms are available for download free from the USRider website).
  12. Hitch up safely. Improper hitching is a common cause of trailer accidents. Use a hitch that’s the correct type, size, and rating to match the coupler. Make sure the hitch is properly installed onto your towing vehicle. Securely fasten the safety chains and breakaway switch actuating chain.
  13. Balance your load. An unbalanced load can cause a trailer to overturn in an accident. When loading your trailer, load the heaviest cargo on the left. If you’re loading only one horse, load him on the left side of the trailer. After loading, secure trailer doors and hatches.
  14. Use protective gear. To help ensure your horse’s safety, always apply shipping boots and a head bumper.
  15. Carry a first-aid kit. Carry a current veterinarian-approved first aid kit. Recommendations for such a kit are listed in the Equine Travel Safety Area on the USRider website.
For additional safety tips, visit the Equine Travel Safety Area — created by Neva Kittrell Scheve and James Hamilton, DVM — on the USRider website at http://www.usrider.org/.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Figuring Out the Figure 8

I don't know if I've posted about how much trouble I've been having with Cricket in on-line play. I hate it. She hates it. She's so grumpy about being on-line that I usually play at liberty or just muddle through and get on to riding.

I've tried doing on-line patterns with her and we always get stuck on the Figure 8. Some days it's good, some days it's just okay but most days she is obviously hateful on the pattern. I've come to believe that all of our on-line issues are manifested in what happens when we work on that blasted Figure 8. If I can figure that out, I can figure out every other on-line problem we have.

This weekend I hosted my good friend and Parelli 1* Trainee Instructor, Wendy Morgan. Because I had volunteered to watch Wendy's daughter, I did not schedule a lesson for myself. I was mostly okay with this because I knew how much it meant to Wendy having someone she trusted take care of Stella. Still, as I watched other people having lovely sessions with their horses, I got a smidge jealous.

Sunday, my dear friend Becky offered to watch Stella so I could squeeze in a lesson. Yippee!!!

I started out with my normal on-line play, just letting Wendy watch me with Cricket. She then asked me about specific issues. My two main points were Figure 8 and cantering on the 22'. We started with Figure 8. I showed Wendy what normally happens. Cricket was good but saw no purpose in the pattern and was just grumpy about it.

So Wendy had me send her around one cone and just as she gave me two eyes for the draw, turn my back and walk to a barrel that was "behind" the Figure 8 pattern. At the barrel I was simply to scratch and love on her. We did this a few times and Cricket had a lovely attitude shift about the pattern. Wendy also worked on softening my send. What I thought was helping motivate Cricket to put in more effort was actually contributing to the grumpiness.

When Cricket offered a soft, energetic send and a happy draw, we moved on to a similar concept with the pedestal. The goal was to focus on the pedestal but the moment Cricket hooked on to the idea, move away and give her scratches. The whole idea was to really get my idea to be her idea. Now Cricket knows all four feet on the pedestal very well. But rather than the "oh well" attitude, we were looking for the "oh boy" attitude.

We returned to the Figure 8 and put a little more variety into it. Cricket was really softening and becoming more receptive. She even started offering some sassy play drive. We decided to move on and have a look at the circle game.

Cricket was fantastic. She gave me some of the best upward transitions, smooth cantering and maintain gait. Gone was the choppy, stompy four-beat canter. Gone was the snarky attitude and the refusal to maintain canter for more than a few strides. I barely had to do anything but let her know what I wanted. At one point she did a bit of a buck and jump and got away from me. It was cool, though, because that's the exuberance we often get at liberty but rarely see on-line.

We ended with a little bit of free-form "send around, come back and get scratches" and called it all a win.

I had so much fun playing with Cricket. Gone was the feeling of drudgery. I saw how much my attitude affected Cricket. And I was reminded that I need to make things into games and puzzles so Cricket can show off just how smart she is. It was a fantastic lesson.

Wendy is coming back next weekend and I'm hoping, with Becky's help, we can squeeze in another lesson!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Centered Riding Lesson

Yesterday I had my first "hands-on" experience with Centered Riding. I've been introduced to some of the concepts when I took lessons with my friend Margenia. I was vaguely aware of it as a cross-discipline approach to riding. But truthfully, I had no idea just how fantastic it could be.

One of my goals this year is to improve my riding dynamic. Cricket is coming to a point where it's not just all about her and sometimes it can be about me. I'm becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Parelli approach to riding. I've never felt secure on my balance point. I always felt I was behind Cricket's motion. I don't believe you adopt totally different posture for riding freestyle vs. riding finesse. It just doesn't make sense. It's not supported by correct biomechanics for either the horse or the rider.

So in searching for an alternative, I decided to try Centered Riding. Not far from me, we have a Level IV apprentice (Level IV being the highest level instructor). I had heard very good things about her from several sources. I rounded up four friends and got them to commit to a lesson with an instructor none of us had ever seen. Just so I could see what it was all about.

The lesson was nothing short of phenomenal. I don't know if I can adequately describe what happened. To be honest, I haven't really started reading the book so I don't have all the correct terminology.

We started, unmounted, doing an exercise to "wake-up" the pelvic floor. This, in turn, affects all the postural and support muscles for the abdomen and the spine. It brings us into a correct and erect position, without having to do much of anything.

Once mounted, we began with a warm-up so the instructor could observe how we moved together. After that, we began specific visualizations and awareness exercises and just played with how it felt in my body and how it affected Cricket in hers. Here are some things I learned:
  • Just taking my awareness to a place behind my seat bones, caused Cricket to lift her withers almost an inch. This had nothing to do with rolling onto my pockets but rather feeling my seat bones and just thinking about the place behind them.
  • Grounding my knees in time with the swing of her belly without following the swing with my pelvis caused Cricket to move more forward in a better stride. I have to resist the seduction of allowing my pelvis to be rocked side to side with her back.
  • Playing a video of what I want in my mind, starting with my body and then the affect on Cricket's body caused much better movement from my horse. I actually caused Cricket to lift her belly and depart from the halt with her hind leg under her.
  • Using energy down the back of my leg to cause forward and energy down the front of my leg to ask for backward
  • Changing my "grip" on the reins had an almost magical effect on my horse.
  • I need to be aware of my negative focus. Cricket cannot differentiate between "don't go to the gate" and "go to the gate." She just knows I'm thinking about the gate and that's where she heads.
  • I gained some insights and tools to avoid arguing with Cricket when she doesn't do what I want, when I want.
  • When I get a little wadded up, my instructor gave me a simple exercise to reset my body to a better position and not worry so much about what I was doing.
I loved the affect the lesson had on Cricket. I loved how drawn she felt to the instructor - this is such a sign of good energy. I was so impressed with how I was able to affect Cricket's posture and way of going with simple changes in my thoughts and awareness.

And the feelings were mutual amongst all of us who took lessons. In fact I'm already chomping at the bit to ride my horse and to play with some of these concepts. I wonder when we can get another lesson scheduled . . .

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wanting More

I've been reflecting on Monday's ride. I still feel guilt for getting so mad at Cricket. For months I've been raving about how wonderful she is and how liberating it feels to accept her for who she is, where she is. And then one little thing goes wrong and my attitude is revealed for what it is - little more than a house of cards.

I cannot help but feeling, however, that I want something more than Cricket can offer. I do understand her headshaking is something we manage rather than cure. I do understand she has no control over her behaviour when she is stressed to the point of headshaking. I also understand I could go bat-ass crazy trying to uncover everything that triggers an episode. Because it's perceived stress.

But I want to ride. I want to trail ride. I want to learn to jump. I want to work on myself while I ride. But Cricket's headshaking trumps all. It will never go away and I will always have to stop what I'm doing to help her.

So what do I do? It sounds selfish but I'm just a little tired of catering all my energy to managing her. And I'm sure she's just a little tired of me not being able to offer her what she needs or expecting more than she can give.

I may have the opportunity to acquire a second horse. This is Bleu. She's a 14 yr old 16.2 hh TB mare. She's not particularly well schooled. But she's a rock-solid trail horse. She passed the Flying Jacket test with little more than a flicked ear. Whilst the horse in front of her did the slam-on-the-brakes-omigosh-we-are-all-going-to-die halt at the Black Hole of Death that opened up on the trail. She seems to take everything in stride. She's not terribly confident but neither is she unconfident. She's incredibly people-oriented and very much wants to please. She has little-to-no exposure to PNH. She's a little unconfident about trailer-loading. Apparently she moves like a million bucks and jumps as well.

I'm going to spend some time getting to know her. She's a bit of a special case. Her owner of many, many years passed away from cancer. She is currently with a good friend of mine - someone who is getting to know the horse and knows me very well. So I've got lots of time to meet her, play with her and ride her before any decisions are made.

I wasn't even thinking of another horse. Every time I have, my focus has been brought back to Cricket. Maybe this makes Bleu the right second horse. Each time I've looked for another horse it was to do what Cricket couldn't. Not exactly fair to Cricket or to a second horse - just filling in until I can get back to my mare. So maybe that makes Bleu right. I need her for what she has to offer me. I dunno. We shall see what happens.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Day

Yesterday was a bad day. On a couple of levels. I'm trying not to beat myself up about it. I'm trying not to feel like a complete hypocrite. It's not exactly working.

I rode yesterday. It wasn't completely awful but it feels as if it was. Of course that's my skewed "you idiot" perspective. Cricket was okay at first but then she started headshaking. Something she hasn't done in ages. And she's developed this habit of going backwards when I ask her for forward. I got frustrated and I got mad. I finally dismounted when she would walk when I asked and halt when I asked. She was happy to follow me out of the arena, wait while I fastened the gate and walk calmly to the paddock to graze - all at liberty.

What went wrong? Buggered if I know. She's been off her spirulina and chastetree berry for a few days. She's been on more clover and maybe her calcium/magnesium balance is off. I was hungry and that always affects my focus and calmness. I felt like I had to ride her rather than really wanting to ride her. I tried to ride the horse I had last Wednesday instead of the horse that showed up this Monday. Emotionally, I was scattered and probably transmitting all that garbage to my horse. Maybe it was one of these things and maybe it was just a bad day.

And then we got the bad news and the bad day got a little worse.

The abscess in Bolder's left front foot is not just an abscess. It's the beginning of his hoof collapsing. There are so many things wrong with sweet Bolder's left front foot but suffice to say, it's compromised. A combination of detached hoof wall, thin soles, deteriorating coffin bone and abnormal hoof wall growth have resulted in a declining foot. Becky knew this would happen. She just hoped it wouldn't happen so soon. The foot is cast with support material and Bolder will be able to get around, quite comfortably, for the next 1-3 weeks, however long the casting lasts.

He'll spend his last days in sunshine and spring grass, surrounded by the herd he's come to love.

I have a special place in my heart for Bolder. He is a sweet gelding and I've been caring for him for several months. He's a bit of a special case - a hard keeper, only one eye, bad knees and a funky foot. He has oodles of charisma and he is still quite the charmer, courting the ladies every chance he gets.

Bolder was born the same year, the same month even, as my Moose. They share parentage - Bolder is a grandson of Bold Ruler and Moose a great-grandson. It's going to hit just a little close to home when we have to say good-bye.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Upward Transitions

Willing upward transitions were a huge struggle for me. As a somewhat fearful rider on a very green horse, I lacked the skill and confidence to teach Cricket what I really wanted. It has taken years to get where we are now - a rider willing to ask and a horse happy to respond.

It's been a rough journey. So many of the things I did caused Cricket to hate upward transitions as much as I feared them. Usually my requests were met with pinned ears, a swishing tail, crow hops or full blown bucking.

I think the main problem with an unconfident rider starting a green horse is that we don't feel comfortable to go with what the horse offers. And the horse can quickly learn that moving out is not a desirable thing. This is what I taught Cricket.

So how did I get from where I started to where I am now? Sometimes I don't exactly know. But here are some things that helped me feel confident and in control and at the same time, allowed Cricket to find freedom in forward.

I learned not to squeeze her with my leg. Squeezing caused her to buck.

I learned not to over-exaggerate my request. All that did was upset her and confuse her.

Most importantly, I learned to cue her first on ground patterns and then under-saddle patterns. Here is where our big breakthrough came.

On the ground, I found two major keys to unlocking our upward transitions: vocal cues and patterns.

Voice Cues
I know PNH is not big on voice cues. I get it. I also understand why. When we're moving our mouths, we're not always aware of our bodies. But I learned this from Linda at the ISC in 2005. Introducing a smooch or cluck for an upward transition gives you another step before applying physical pressure. For an introverted horse, that means more time to think. So in asking for an upward transition, introduce a cluck or smooch with phase 1.

Dan Thompson said anything can be a pattern. I believe him. To help Cricket understand "upward transition" vs. "go faster" I used a variation on the circle game to get my point across.

I simply placed a cone at 12 o'clock and the game was "transitions at the cone." Depending on where you are with your horse, the game can be adapted. Basically, it's on-line/liberty question box. Ask your horse for a change at the cone and then leave him alone when he complies. If he breaks gait, just leave him alone until he comes back to the cone and ask again.

It's a game; a puzzle to be solved. And it works for every horse. And you can build your expectations.

The game can be expanded to assist in maintain gait by adding more cones at 6 o'clock and then at 3 and 9 o'clock. Start with 12 and 6, asking for the upward transition at each marker, allowing the horse to break gait in between. If he is still struggling, add the next two markers, asking for the upward transition at each marker. Eventually the horse finds it easier to maintain than shift up and down.

Works great for the human because it stops us from micro-managing or getting frustrated. Each cone is an opportunity and there's no nagging in between. The space between the cones is true neutral.

Under Saddle
In riding, the key was relaxation in motion and patterns.

Relaxation in Motion
There is nothing worse than an emotional and tense horse. The horse cannot learn, he cannot feel comfortable and it's just an accident waiting to happen. For Cricket, I needed to teach her to relax in motion. This was almost automatic on the ground but it needed to transfer to under saddle. Mostly this came from just paying attention, working on my riding dynamic and moving long enough to cause her to make a change.

Most of our rides were based on survival. Probably for both of us. I was just happy when I could end a ride at my choice rather than feeling like I needed to get off. Not exactly a harmonious partnership.

Once I got saddle fit working and some improvement in my balance and posture, the next part was just moving long enough to let her blow and release the tension. At first I'd transition down to the halt when she'd offer relaxation. Just so she knew that was the key. Later, I'd ask her to continue to move. Eventually she was offering less tension. She's not 100% relaxed 100% of the time. But neither am I. The key is noticing and making it important.

There are those pesky patterns again. For me, the key pattern was the question box. For others it may be corners or point to point. The important thing is the pattern and allowing it to work.

In my reflections on riding Cricket I came to two main conclusions: causing her to trot took focus and intention; when cantering was her idea, it was an effortless transition. So I needed to help her understand my intention and cause it to be her idea too. The question box worked for me because it gave me the idea of control. Of course cantering on a bend is infinitesimally harder than cantering a straight line. But the infinity of the circle helped me feel more relaxed.

From there, it was just repeating the pattern until it worked. Coming through the box, I asked Cricket to canter and then just committed to riding whatever she did. It took 6 or 7 repetitions for her to go, "Oh, you meant canter! Why didn't you just say so in the first place?" From there on, it's been a fairly simple matter. I'm now cantering her on both leads, on the rail, around the arena and out in the paddock.

Even more important than any of the things I did was The Big Realization. And you know what that is? It's finally understanding that it doesn't matter what I cannot do with her or what we haven't yet accomplished. My focus needs to be solidly on all the wonderful things we can do. All the ways in which Cricket reveals her fabulosity every time I'm around her.

Falling in love with how perfect a horse she is at every moment is so liberating. I walk away from every play session with a list of WOW! moments. Things that just make me smile.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rider Biomechanics - Cool Stuff!

Over the past several months, I've come to realize that the next step in my horsemanship journey needs to be about me. I have also come to realize that Parelli does not hold the answers. I love what I've learned and I will continue to study and apply the program. But I need to find more correct resources for my riding.

One avenue is Centered Riding. I'll be taking my first lesson next Thursday and I'm really excited. I'll be sure to fill you in on the details.

Another is rider biomechanics. For over two years I've been taking training in Pilates. Through this experience I have a heightened awareness of my body, connecting to the correct muscles and becoming more conscious of how I move. While this has translated over to my riding, it's stalled just a little.

My friend Kathy has introduced me to the work of Colleen Kelly and the idea of rider biomechanics. Last Friday I had the opportunity to meet Colleen and hear her speak. I totally loved it!

Yesterday, after Cricket's follow-up with her equine chiropractor, Kathy came out and worked with me. It's one of the first times I've actually worked just on myself without having to worry about Cricket. It was enlightening and fun.

Rider biomechanics focuses on the correct alignment and use of the body to influence the horse. In correcting our balance, engagement and weight, we can move the horse without relying on leg, stick and rein.

The lesson was done saddled, with a bit and contact rein. At the halt, Kathy helped me find the right position for my thigh that would keep me engaged and stable in the saddle. What I found, after she corrected my leg, was how easy it was to maintain quiet stability in my lower leg and how easily my weight transferred to my stirrup. All this was achieved without tightening anything or jamming anything. It was weird but entirely too cool!

We started at the walk, doing some sitting and standing work for balance and stability. Kathy started introducing the idea of a weight aid. It's not a shift and it's not pressure - it's just sinking weight into one stirrup or the other to influence the bend of the horse.

Next we moved to rising trot. Wow! With my thighs engaged, my lower leg stayed square underneath me and posting was effortless. Of course it was a little harder to coordinate the weight aids but we just worked on it, playing with the cues to help Cricket find the response I was after.

The final thing Kathy introduced was bringing Cricket on the bit. It's hard to explain but it involved bringing my inside rein to the top of my half chap as we rounded the corner. Emphasizing the bend through the corner caused Cricket to step deep and forward with her inside hind, bringing her pelvis down and over her hock and lifting her shoulder. When I finally got it right, Cricket maintained the engagement about 2/3 of the way down the long side wall. I really felt the difference in her push from behind.

All in all it was a very cool exploration of how my body affects my balance and my horse's way of going. I loved the ease at which Cricket moved and turned with nothing but a subtle emphasis of weight in one stirrup or the other. I loved how easy it was to move with her rhythm, posting with little or no effort. I loved the feeling of her coming on the bit and powering more from the hindquarters.

Almost more than anything, I was so pleased with Cricket. I rode her on contact almost the entire lesson, doing little more than rail work. She handled it with such a soft steady attitude. I haven't used that much contact in ages and she was soft and relaxed to the feeling.

I'm doing another lesson with Kathy before I head off to my spring camp. I love this new adventure and cannot wait to see where it takes us!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gate Friendly - For Clare, By Request

Clare has asked me to talk more about my gate-friendly program with Cricket. So Clare, here you go . . .

I have had serious issues with opening a gate from horseback. It's my fault entirely.

When I first began taking Cricket out of the arena, my biggest fear was that she would run away with me. So as soon as we'd clear the gate, I'd get her on grass and allow her to eat. What I didn't realize until the pattern was well established is that I had created a "runaway." I no longer had true control of Cricket when it came to gates.

As Linda says, "not one moment longer." But the question was how? Last fall I watched Carol Coppinger demo some awesome gate friendly using a savvy string. Looping the string around the top rail of the gate gave Carol more drift and control to help Legend understand what she wanted from him. So this gave me a tool to help establish a new pattern with Cricket.

We have just started working on this. Yesterday was day three.

There are particular mechanics to safely opening a gate from horseback. This can be - and in some cases, should be - taught first from the ground. Cricket is not a skittish or nervous horse so we've done almost all gate training from the saddle. For an excellent article on the method for maneuvering a horse around opening a gate, check out Cherry' Hill's article here.

I have broken down the steps that will result in a successful gate opening and closing. Each step requires relaxation and Cricket's willingness to stay in close proximity to the gate, not moving until requested and directed.
  1. Walk up to or sideways over to the gate, my leg/torso lined up with the latch.
  2. Stand quietly while I unlatch the gate.
  3. Back a few steps to line up with the gate opening, staying close enough so I can keep my hand on the gate.
  4. Sideways out the gate, close so as not to loose contact with the gate.
  5. Yield HQ to swing around to the other side of the gate.
  6. Sideways back in order to shut the gate.
  7. Stand quietly to re-latch the gate.
  8. Wait for the cue to move off.
Where the savvy string comes into play is that it allows us to drift from the gate without losing control of the gate. It also allows me to sit more upright while in the teaching phase of this pattern.

Cricket will line up and allow me to unlatch the gate. Our issue lies mainly in what happens right after I unlatch the gate. As I return upright, she backs up and pushes it with her nose before I ask for anything. Not safe. Not savvy.

The first part of our program was to cause her to stand still while I sat up and swung the gate. So with gate unlatched and savvy string in hand, I sat up. Cricket pushed the gate and backed up to exit. I used the string to close the gate and then I repositioned Cricket. We repeated this until she could stand still while I swung the gate out and back. Re-latched the gate, gave her a cookie and moved on.

The next session, I played with wiggling the gate, rattling the latch. Then I opened the gate and swung it a few times. No reaction. Totally casual rein. Re-latched the gate, gave her a cookie and moved on.

Yesterday we put it to purpose. I had my string ready, just in case. Did all the same things - rattled the latch, gate in and out a few times and then I asked her to move with the gate and out of the arena.

The only hiccup is in swinging her HQ around. She backed away from the gate. I held the string and asked her to come forward. No worries, back in position. She moved sideways to close the gate and stood still while I re-latched and sat up. Still relaxed, we paused for a moment before heading to the paddock.

This whole process moved pretty quick with her. Mostly because she is calm and relaxed and not at all claustrophobic. Also, controlling her emotions from the very beginning and not proceeding until she accepted the open gate with out moving. The rest will come from practice. And well timed cookies!

There are lots of ways to safely take a horse through a gate. The above sequence seems to be a very safe approach for teaching a horse to partner up for opening and closing a gate. The big thing is to remember it's a game and it's like anything else we've taught - safety and confidence are more important than actually opening and closing the gate. If you have to leave the gate swung wide, make sure you're in a situation where you can do this. Not in your neighbor's cattle field; not in an arena filled with beginner riders.


Yesterday was simply amazing. At one point I just stopped and squealed because I could not contain my joy and amazement.

Two of my best friends came out - Becky and Margenia - and we had a fantastic day.

I started Cricket with a brief warm-up on the 12'. Nothing major - just enough to see where she was at with her energy and connection. After her stretches, I saddled her up and off we went.

We warmed up with some walking and trotting on the rail and then into canter. Cricket has become a canter-aholic. She's so forward. I know we need to work on more gas pedal control but that will come. Right now, I'm kind of happy encouraging her upward transitions.

I asked Genia to watch because I'm struggling with my downward transitions. I keep getting pitched forward and it's discombobulating for me and for Cricket. In order to actually practice canter-trot transitions, I need to be able to ride her down from the canter instead of lurching about like a drunk monkey.

Genia keenly observed that my leg was floating too far back. Thus my knee was acting as a fulcrum for my upper body causing me to pitch forward as Cricket slowed (think about hitting the brakes in your car when you're not wearing a seat belt). It felt kind of foreign but we played with bringing my leg forward. Suddenly I wasn't so "fish out of water" when Cricket down-shifted. Still not the picture of grace and elegance but it's a start. We played with right and left lead canter and even used the question box for some simple changes.

I decided to join Genia (she'd already gone out) and the others in the play paddock. Cricket was awesome to open the gate. She gets a little emotional going out but she didn't fight with me when I asked her to come back and help close the gate. And then she stood, patiently, rather than trying to head off for the grass. For anyone struggling with gate friendly games - loop a savvy string on the gate. It's amazingly helpful.

Our little play paddock is bounded on three sides by electric fence and has jumps, barrels, trot poles and my short bridges. The terrain is uneven - it slopes down from the barn and has a bitty "hill" going across the back (part of the terraces for the whole field). It's a great place to get out of the arena.

We started with just walking and trotting around - all on a nice casual rein. When we stopped, no grass diving. At all. I actually had to convince Cricket I wanted her to put her head down. This is our third time working on this from under saddle. After some grazing we moseyed around some more, trotting down the left fence, in front of the terrace and up the right fence towards the barn then across the open end to the other fence.

And with no effort at all, as we crossed the back of the field, I asked her for a canter. And with no effort at all, she transitioned to the canter. And it was soft and sweet and relaxed. And the most fun I've ever had. And that's when I squealed. Because I have NEVER cantered my own horse with no boundaries. The only time I've cantered on a trail was on lesson horses. The only time I cantered Moose outside the arena was in an enclosed 5 acre field and that was just down the fence towards another horse.

We cantered on both leads. We cantered several times. It wasn't a fluke. It wasn't hanging on for dear life. It wasn't something we survived. It was something I want to do again and again and again.

I also asked her to trot over a small jump. She over-jumped it and I wasn't ready for that and I got a little rattled. But I didn't catch her in the head and I didn't thump on her back. For the rest of our session, every time we stopped she was perfectly content not to eat. How cool is that?!

My only worrisome thing is the emergence of two white spots on her sides. It's something with my saddle and I need to figure it out. I don't think it's the fit but there is something not quite right. Ugh! If it's not one thing, it's something else!

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Good Time Was Had By All

So in case anyone is wondering, because it's not been clear in my last several posts - I love my horse. She is unbelievably awesome and her fabulosity shines through more and more. This is not because she is becoming a better horse but rather because I am figuring how to be a better human.

Just a couple details on the play session. We had a brief warm-up in the paddock and then I saddled her in the aisle way. With her 22' piled on the ground, she stood, facing the grass and accepted the saddling and girthing. She moved once or twice but I just calmly put her back where I wanted. Once mounted, I worked a little on "don't graze until I give permission." This is a leadership issue and we're addressing it.

The idea was to go on a little trail ride. Didn't really work out. The setting sun brought out the little bugs and Cricket started headshaking. At first I wanted to just push her through it. Don't ask me why. I quickly got hold of myself, told the others to go on and turned her back to the barn. I stood her tied while I did some feed prep and then took her back into the arena.

In the arena we played with walk-trot transitions and Cricket's new favorite thing - cantering. Not quite sure why my LBI loves cantering in the arena. Maybe it's her way of defying definition. I worked on some control at the right lead - cantering down the long side, circling the back half of the arena and then continuing down the other long side. We even picked up the left lead and went about 3/4 of the way around the arena.

Called it a win! Worked on opening the gate and exiting the arena. She's a little difficult going through the gate but better than she's ever been about standing while I close it. Having a savvy string on the gate has helped give us more drift and thus more success.

Wandered in the paddock, chatting with some friends. Played more "don't eat, yet" and had moderate success. Considering this is only our second time playing with it under saddle, I'm more than pleased.

I'm having more fun with her than I could ever imagine. I need to work on downward transitions - it's very unpretty right now. But I don't care. We'll figure it out, just like we have everything else.

Contemplating Brace

So I've been thinking - a dangerous past time I know. I'm prompted to post because my comments to my friend Clare's blog post were getting too long.

I've been reading about different experiences and watching some of the folks out at the barn. One woman is having difficulty because her horse reacts the moment she picks up the reins; another's horse braces when asking for a turn.

I started thinking about my journey with Cricket and all the studying and experimentation I've been doing. And I started to wonder.

I used to argue with Cricket. A lot. She wouldn't go where I wanted in the manner I wanted. She acted out at saddling, mounting and bridling. She bucked up at the canter, she balked about backing towards something, she ducked out on jumps. Lots and lots of little arguments. Why? Because some how I had it in my mind that she was wrong and I was right. And she had it in her mind that she was being the best horse she could in the moment.

And there's the kicker. In every moment she was being the best horse she could be and I was failing to be the best partner I could be.

I think the majority of our recent success stems from my acceptance of my horse. I accept the horse she is right now. I'm not trying to change her but rather find a way I can cause her to respond to what I want. The question is not "Why won't Cricket canter?" but rather "How do I cause her to understand I want to canter and that she can do so willingly and without fear?"

My goals mean nothing if she's not partnering with me towards their achievement. I have to take the time to cause her to understand and not brace - mentally, emotionally or physically - against me. It's about her confidence. Her mental confidence in the puzzle I set-up. Her emotional confidence in her ability and my leadership. Her physical confidence that compliance will not cause discomfort or pain.

In the recent Mastery Lesson DVD, Linda reiterates the phrase "not one moment longer." When the horse tenses or braces, the moment you notice is the last moment it should be allowed. Whatever you were doing, whatever your focus, it must shift to address the lack of relaxation and acceptance. If you don't, you train in the tension rather than training in the relaxation.