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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Maybe, Just Maybe

Could it be that I'm actually progressing with Cricket?

Crazy talk!

Last Wednesday, I rode with my friend Kathy.  I didn't really have a plan.  I wanted Kathy's feedback on Cricket's flexion issues but other than that, I was just enjoying time on the back of my horse.

While Kathy played with bending and physical connection, I just started warming Cricket up.  I dropped the reins and Cricket did some lovely follow the rail.  I thought that was pretty cool but wondered how much that was habit and how much was actually following my focus.

When I asked her to cut in, half way down the long side of the arena, she sort of listened and sort of didn't.  I changed my focus to a trot circle and only used the rein when she actively ignored my focus and my body.  We achieved some very nice right bend circles and then we switched to the left.

Cricket struggled more to the left and I'm beginning to believe she might be out just a little bit, making that arc a little more difficult.  I cued her for the trot and she picked up a lovely, rhythmic trot.  She fought the bend when we had to come across the arena but overall she was very good.

Towards the end, she maintained such cadence that I was really able to focus on myself and experiment with shifting my body to affect her bend.  Our final circle came when I really got my inside shoulder up and back and lifted myself out of the hollow on the right side of her body and Voila! she changed her bend and followed the circle with relative ease.

We finished with a little finesse and I'm more convinced that her reluctance is more physical than mental.

Sunday I rode again.  Abby was working on her posting with Bleu and I was just meandering around on Cricket.  We did some more "no hands" trot circles and she followed my focus incredibly well.  We opened the gate and though she was reluctant to work with me, that had more to do with slightly tender feet than anything else.  Once out on the grass, she didn't dive to graze at all.  I trotted her around a little and when I stopped, she just waited.  I jumped off, took off her bridle and allowed her to graze.

Oh, speaking of bridles . . . I rode in my new Herm Sprenger bit and I love it.  I played with bridle friendly, really taking the time I needed to get Cricket to drop the mental brace.  We still need more but by the time I put the bridle on, Cricket was engaged in the game and actively seeking the bit.  She still offers some resistance to actual bridling but it was much improved.

Maybe, just maybe, by fall camp we'll have enough of our freestyle riding working at L3 that we can get some audition feedback from Carol.  Fingers crossed!

Bringing up the Butterflies and More

I have been riding.  Honest.

My biggest problem, and not just with my horses, is my serious lack of attention.  I get very excited about something, going great guns for awhile.  Then something else catches my fancy and I'm off like a rocket in a totally different direction.  It's no wonder why I seem to be spinning my wheels all the time.

I committed to my program of carrot stick riding.  Then I got the wild hair to teach Cricket to drive.  From that pursuit, I've developed an interest in classical in-hand training.  All of that got shelved after auditing Carol Coppinger's Super Camp and now I want to ride freestyle.

Really, it's a medical condition and I should seek professional help.

I spent five days at Carol Coppinger's first Tennessee Super Camp.  I was not truly auditing as my primary responsibility was caring for my friend's daughter.  Wendy was invited, by Carol, to assist in teaching the camp and I volunteered to play Nanny so she could focus on teaching.  While I didn't get to really watch, I was able to see enough to get fired up about my L3 Freestyle (again).

Following the camp, and despite the horrible storms that affected north Alabama, Wendy worked with me and both my horses.  The general message - the devil is in the details; it's time to sweat the small stuff.

My lesson agenda was entirely direct-line:  I wanted help with carrot stick riding to prepare for my L3 Freestyle audition.  While we did address that issue, where I found the most help was in my groundwork with Cricket and an impromptu session with Bleu.

The highlights of my session with Cricket:
  • Improving the quality of our groundwork and on-line warm-up.  While I'm right in saving the "cream" for our under-saddle work, if the warm-up is ho-hum and Cricket is not connecting mentally, I don't have much hope for a good ride.
  • The quality of neutral cannot be over-emphasized.  The pauses between the notes create the music.
  • Breaking bridling down into a step-by-step friendly game.  Can you bring your head around and relax?  With my hand between your ears?  With the headstall in my other hand?  With the headstall between your ears, resting on your face?  With the bit at your mouth?
  • Cricket is far enough along to understand the consequence of not following my focus.  So with CS riding, I need to be clear about offering eyes, bellybutton, leg, STICK.  The idea is to bring the stick into play with the attitude of "you knew it was coming, hate it for you."
  • Getting into the psychology of maintain gait.  How do you make breaking gait more difficult than simply maintaining gait?  Not so easy with a LBI and the canter!
My session with Cricket was great and what we covered is making a big difference in our sessions together.  But my biggest revelations came in my time with Bleu.

Not having a plan for working with her, Wendy started off with a "Seven Games Diagnostic." We focused primarily on Friendly Game and Driving Game (with some Circle Game as an extension of what we did in the Driving Game).

Playing FG with Bleu, Wendy challenged me to maintain the rhythm until Bleu could ask me a question.  It wasn't about moving past tolerance to acceptance but rather going a step further to checking in with me.  I don't know if this was Wendy's intent but I can see serious value in teaching this response.  When commotion starts, don't just accept it, check in with me to see what we need to do about it.

My socks truly got blown off when we played with the Driving Game.  Wendy talked to me about the concept of "bringing up the butterflies" and the "return spring."  Too often, especially with RB horses, we spend too much time going slow to build confidence and deal with thresholds.  For L1 and L2 that's ideal because it's safe.  But in L3 and L4 it's about developing the horse as much as the human and it's time for something more.

The driving question behind this shift is this: Does the alpha mare care how an individual herd member feels?  The simple answer is, No.

This is a HUGE paradigm shift for me.  I've been the biggest advocate of "set it up and wait" and "slow and right beats fast and wrong."  I try not to over-face my horses and would rather err on the side of asking to little than demanding too much.

We used driving backwards to play with the idea that "it's okay for you to be upset, but look at me and do as I say."

I started with a long phase 1 and a slow escalation of phases to get Bleu moving backwards.  Once she got the idea, I increased the intensity and asked for snappy!  The idea was to keep it up until she started offering something a little more - thinking backwards, better flexion, etc.  All through the backing, I used the lead line to bring her head back to look at me with two eyes and 2 ears.  When I found a stopping point, I brought her forward and started over.  No waiting for the lick and chew, no babysitting her confidence.

After about the third repetition, Bleu immediately licked and chewed the moment we stopped.  How interesting!  She never really gave me good flexion but she started putting more energy into backing and she was staying straighter.  I took that as a win because at least she seemed more connected.

We took the same idea to the Circle Game.  Back up like you mean it; send and take your shoulder with you.  If she didn't take her shoulder out onto the circle the I disengaged and resent.  To the left she was good; to the right, much less confident.

In the middle of everything, the most amazing thing started to happen.  Bleu started playing with me!  She was leaping, jumping, cantering and PLAYING!  The best part?  I knew it and was playing with her.  She had a hard time taking her shoulder out to right and I had to be firm and repeat the request multiple times.  But she started departing at the canter, maintaining the canter for multiple laps and drawing to me with this engaged and fabulous expression.  And to top it off, she looked MAGNIFICENT!  She started experimenting with her body and moving with better arc on the circle.  How cool is that?

This is a quantum leap in my thinking.  But it's taking my horsemanship to a new level.  Bleu's general draw has gone through the roof - it's like her leader suddenly appeared and she's happy to be with me.  Cricket is finally willing to acknowledge that a better alpha has shown up (at least sometimes).  Yesterday I trotted circles (both bends) with no hands - total relaxation, cadence and only one or two corrections with the reins.

Just when I'm ready to shelve Parelli for awhile, something like this comes along and knocks my socks off (again).

Friday, May 6, 2011

What Matters Most

It's been over a month since I've really posted anything about my horsemanship journey.  So much has happened in just the last week and it's cast a very melancholy light on my life.

Last week Alabama was ravaged by a massive storm system that spawned over 20 tornadoes.  People were killed, houses destroyed, property damaged.  The entire northern portion of the state was without power for up to a week (some still haven't had power restored) and our utilities are still unstable and subject to additional outages.

I was unaware of the damage as I was up in Shelbyville, TN for Carol Coppinger's first Tennessee Super Camp.  We had some bad weather but nothing compared to what they suffered at home.  It wasn't until my friend called Thursday morning that I became aware of the events of the previous 24 hours.  My first thought was my family - my mother, father, sister, brother-in-law and niece.  Were they safe?

The power was out, the phones were out and the cell networks were so overloaded calls just weren't going through.  I had no idea the status of my family.  It's hard to maintain emotional fitness in those moments.  Time stood still and my heart stopped beating.  My family is my world and what would life be like without them?

It wasn't until much later that I was able to reach my brother-in-law.  Though he wasn't with my sister and my parents, he'd spoken to them after the storms has passed and before the phone lines went dead.  They were safe.  Thank God.

Throughout the day, I checked in with my friends and slowly reports of "we are all fine" filtered in.  My home was safe and my horses were unharmed.  I have several friend who narrowly survived.  They have major property damage but no loss of life - people or animals.

I returned to work Wednesday, once power was restored to my office building.  Each day - as I drive to work and return to my home - I have to pass by one of the worst disaster sites.  The tornado worked it's way through a neighborhood then crossed the street to lay waste to a pharmacy, gas station and grocery store.  It's almost crazy to see the credit union with barely a scratch and nothing but rubble where the gas station, not 100ft away, used to stand.

I have some very cool things going on with both horses.  I want to post about my amazing lesson with Wendy Morgan, 2* Junior Instructor.  But now just isn't the time.  Hug your loved ones.  Never end a conversation without an "I love you."  Kiss your horses and stroke them as if it's the first time you've met and the last time you may see them.  Life is a precious and fragile gift.