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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sometimes the Answer is NO

One of the important lessons I learned from my camp experience is that it's okay to say no.

But wait, you say.  Doesn't this contradict everything we've been told?  The horse is always right.  Don't make him feel wrong.

Well, yes and no.

Allow me to digress . . . years and years ago I read about a study done with children and fenced yards.  The researchers found that children who played in fenced yards were more self-confident, less fearful and more exuberant than children who played in yards without defined boundaries.  Hmm, how interesting.

My interpretation of this . . . The fence provided a clear, consistent and unemotional NO.  On the other hand, the children in the open space might freely roam into the neighbor's yard one day but be scolded the next.  A frantic parent might grab the child inches from tumbling into the street but later pull them back 10 ft from the curb.  Inside the fence, you won't find children sobbing because the fence is there nor will you find them constantly running into the fence, expecting it to move.  No, what you will find is joyful, exuberant PLAY.  You'll find kids running from one end to the other, whooping and hollering.  In the open space, you might find the children are hesitant to run, unsure of where the real boundary lay. And should the parents encourage these children to play, you might see hesitation and refusal.

So how does that relate to horsemanship? I'm sure you've already figured out where I'm going with this . . .

Every time my horse asks a question, it involves the boundaries of our relationship.  It's a little more complicated than a simple fenced yard but the basic, underlying principle is the same.

One of the exercises we did at camp was to ask our horses to circle.  No big deal except that it was at liberty in the big arena with 11 other horses around.  Every horse left - even Carol's.  Every horse came back with the "Can I come to you?" look and every one of us said, "No."

You heard me.  We all said, "No."

Because the game was circles.  And the horses knew it.  When Cricket left and came back, her question to me was, "Can I come to you?"  And my answer was, "Thank you for asking but could you please find your circle."  I don't remember how many times she left but each time she headed towards me, I thanked her and reminded her we were playing circle game.  When she found her circle, I said, "YES!" and brought her in.

It's difficult to say, "No."  But establishing boundaries and creating an expectation of responsibilities is more liberating than saying "Yes" all the time.  In my last couple of ground sessions, I've raised the bar and Cricket has offered more exuberance than I've seen in ages.

Of course the key is how you say, "No."  It cannot be authoritarian or dictatorial or emotional.  It must be prefaced with, "thank you for asking but could you please . . ."  You must have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish and reward the moment - the absolute INSTANT - your horse hooks on to the idea even if you don't achieve the final product.

It's okay to say, "No" because often there's a much better YES! on the other side.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Endless Possibilities

Camp was an absolutely amazing experience.  Every year I say best camp EVER and this is no exception.

I don't usually take notes during camp but this year I did.  There was so much great stuff and I'm glad I took the time to write it down.

Please remember that my notes are my interpretation, taken through the filter of my experience.  Nothing in this post is to be construed as the definitive way something should be done.
  • It really is about playing a game.  Until you evoke the game, it's just "make" and you'll constantly be doing more and getting less.
  • Phases, at this level, are about stealth.  Carol gave us the analogy of a hunter going through the woods.  If he crashes through the brush, calling "Any deer around here?" by the time he gets to the clearing, he's going to think there are no deer in the entire county.  You have to sneak up on Phase 4 so you cause your horse to really pay attention.
  • Phases are about intention, not motion and commotion.  Phase 4 should be delivered with a smile and you should aim to kiss the hair on the top of zone 5 with the popper.
  • When your horse knows your phases and is counting on the consistency, start mixing things up.  But don't just go to phase 4 every time.  It's got to be a game!
  • Until you have a consistent canter at phase 1, you are working on snappy departs and not maintain gait.
  • There is a big difference between a phase 1 canter and a phase 4 canter.
  • You cannot hide behind your tools, thinking the CS alone will get you a canter depart.  You must have intention.
  • Using the slingshot to invoke the game - slow draw towards and a speedy redirect, aiming the popper at the belly, just behind the elbow.
  • Level 4 is about accessing the athleticism of the right brain with the left brain in control.  In the early levels, it's all about safety but in L3/4 you need to unlock the right brain and clear out the cobwebs.
  • Getting to the right brain can get a little unfriendly - your LB horse, who thinks she knows everything about you, needs to learn your less predictable than she thought.  It's okay for your horse to be a little frightened.
  • Put purpose to everything you do.  Don't do a falling leaf "just because" - use it to invoke the game or get more snappy or as a "consequence" for not upholding a responsibility.  Don't just go from one end of the arena "doing a falling leaf."
  • Have a clear idea of what your looking for and how to reward it.  Stop when you get what you want.
  • Once your horse hooks onto the idea, reward it and stop.  At least for a little while.
  • Forget the horse you had yesterday, this morning, five minutes ago or even five seconds ago.  That horse no longer exists.  What horse do you have in this moment?
  • Asking a worried horse to calm down only adds more pressure.
  • Retreat doesn't have to mean going away completely.  In a new environment, retreat from one object by going away to another and another and another.  When you return to the first object, it's suddenly familiar.
  • FORWARD IS THE KEY.  If you don't have forward, do what it takes to get it.
  • Can you use your tools independent of everything else? Can your horse yield to the CS without your body?  Can he yield to the bit without your seat?  The key is intention.
  • The horse must learn to uphold his responsibilities.
  • Can you cause your horse to stretch forward into contact?  Can you cause him to stretch into contact and offer forward into that contact?  This is the key to real finesse riding.  It's not just about the headset or the frame but rather about the horse really understanding contact.
  • The more your horsemanship develops, the less overtly evaluating horsenality matters.  You just know where to be, why to be and what to do when you get there.
I'm sure there's more but this is the nuts and bolts of what we covered during camp.  As I moved through the four days, I realized that I do not play with Cricket.  On the last day, during our individual liberty session, I found the play, not just in me but in her.  And it was fabulous.

Prior to camp, I had this idea the level 3 meant we were done.  As I think about invoking the game and causing Cricket to want to offer more, suddenly I see door opening everywhere and the possibilities are endless.  Here's to dwelling in the world of possibility.

I Did It!

There it is.  My green string.  I can hardly believe it.


This means more to me than I can ever explain.

I set out to achieve L3 and somewhere in the middle, I realized that what I wanted was the horsemanship and not the string.  After my liberty audition, I was determined that my freestyle would flow naturally out of my progress with Cricket.  I was not going to "try for my freestyle."

So I just went about playing and riding.  And things got better and better.  I had folks telling me to just video it and get it done.  I didn't want to - not because I was afraid of failing but because I didn't want to turn everything into something artificial.

My goal, as I prepared for camp, was simply to go and just let things unfold.  If nothing else, Carol would give me feedback on what I needed to achieve L3.

On the second day of camp, Carol asked us to ride a figure-8 with 1 or 2 sticks.  When it was my turn, I just started at the walk, asking Cricket to find the pattern.  We moved to a trot and then just flowed into the canter.  It was a little helter-skelter but it was okay.  We worked it out.  I could hear the strains of "Barbie Girl" over the loudspeaker and just started to have FUN!

And then I heard it.  Carol's voice.  "That's solid level 3 riding."  And I knew we had it.

As we wrapped up camp on Tuesday, Carol asked us for our highlights.  I told her my biggest highlight was not necessarily my green string.  It was that I came to camp and for the first time, I wasn't the one saying, "I'll just trot" or "I'm not going to canter."  It was that I made this journey with my horse.  Truthfully, the string was just gravy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Camp Day 4: Wrapping it All Up

The last day of camp is always a little bittersweet.  The longing for more is all jumbled up with the fatigue and brain-fry that comes from spending 10-12 hours a day in a pretty intense learning environment.  So we don't do a whole lot of new stuff.

Almost half the private sessions for the morning consisted of chatting at the picnic table.  It was so cool to have that one-on-one with Carol and interesting that so many of us came to the same idea.  I think I got something out of each conversation - maybe even more than I got out of my own.

We had individual liberty sessions in the round corral for our morning ground work.  I was a little nervous, this kind of spotlight can send me a little right-brain.  I decided just to focus on the skills I needed to get Cricket more responsive.  I was really pleased with our session.  Carol coached me through my phases and I actually felt playful with my horse.  Nothing earth-shattering but I started to get some nice upward transitions at phase 1 and that's part of what we need to have even a hope of maintain gait.

The weather was a little non-cooperative but we were able to ride for about an hour before we wrapped up.  I think I have some better insights into getting Cricket to stretch and come into contact and once we get some of these basics, I think our riding is going to get really good.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Camp Day 3: Rise and Fall

My private session this morning was a bit of a fall from glory.  After ending on such a high yesterday, it was bound to happen.

I wanted to work on maintain gait on-line.  At the canter.  It wasn't pretty.  At least to me.  I felt uncoordinated with my tools, my horse was unenthusiastic about my efforts and I felt as if we did a whole lot of something for a whole lot of nothing.

I'm sure that's just my perspective.

In our ground session we did long line driving.  My frustration from my private session spilled over into our group session.  I was way too hard on Cricket, probably as a reflection of being too hard on myself.  Cricket got just a little scared of me.  While I'm thrilled to see her access a little of her right brain, I'm not proud about how it happened.

We wrapped up driving and did some liberty.  Of course Carol calls on us to do our liberty circle game right as Cricket and I are in this uncertain place in our relationship.  It was okay but I could tell Cricket wasn't so sure about it.

As we played at liberty for the session, Cricket tried so hard to please me but I think my confusion made that very hard for her.  While I was asking her for a figure 8, she left me and went to the middle of the arena and offered a circle game.  By herself, complete with change of direction.  Around no one.

Later she went out from my figure 8 and offered a figure 8 on the other side of the arena.  By herself, completely alone.

She hooked up with my friend Margenia's horse and they proceeded to take a casual stroll on the wild side.  Carol had Genia and I meet up in the middle of the arena and ask them to circle us.  It was pretty cool as both mares worked out a circle together.  When they hooked onto the game, we disengaged them and they came right up to us.

Our mounted session was better.  A review and extension of the previous day.  We also introduced some lateral work, building the blocks towards half-pass, side-pass, haunches in and shoulders in.  I really struggled with Cricket's bend to the left.  I asked Carol about it and she helped me to separate each element and figure out what was confusing Cricket.  I'm not sure how long I played with this but I finally started making some progress and called it a day.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Camp Day 2: Fun Fun Fun

Just when I thought it couldn't get better . . .

We had another mind-blowing private session about the circle game.  It's amazing how such a simple concept has so many layers and facets.  Our ground session was a bit of a review of the previous day and then expanding on the liberty we started on day one.  Carol is asking us to stretch our idea of how the horse takes responsibility and it's pretty intense.

Under saddle, we started with a review of day one and then did some CS riding using a F8.  Carol had half the riders at one end, half at the other and the goal was to do a F8 using CS and neck string.  As always, it was up to us how to approach it for safety and confidence.  When it was my turn, I was pretty nervous about it.  But it's a pattern Cricket knows and likes so I felt that we could work through it.  I started at a walk to get Cricket on the pattern and then we moved to a trot and then a canter.

I cantered my horse with just a carrot stick.

It wasn't perfect, it wasn't all that pretty (at least in my mind) but dammit, I did it.

And then I cried.  Happy tears.  I've waited so long for that moment.

The second time around was better.

My private session was the first of the afternoon and I decided, just for fun, to ride bridle-less.  Crazy, right?

Crazy fun!  Cricket was so freakin' amazing.  We did all gaits, simple changes through the walk, sideways, yields . . . Oh my gosh it was a blast.

At the end, all I could do was thank Carol for all she's done over the course of my journey with Cricket.

So I wonder what day three holds?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Camp Day 1: Exceeding Expectations

The first day of camp was amazing.  Every part of the day exceeded any expectations I had coming in.

I have to admit to some trepidation.  Cricket and I have a bit of a rocky history with camp.  As hard as I try not to carry that particular baggage with us, it's hard.  I have so much time and emotion invested in this horse and we can crash pretty hard.

Almost every moment of the first day was just knock-your-socks-off kick-butt.

Each day of camp starts with private sessions.  Then we usually do some sort of simulations before starting our ground session.  After a lunch break we have a riding session and then finish the day with some more private sessions.

One of the early morning private sessions was focused on the circle game.  And that was the key, it's a GAME.  I think I got enough out of that 15 minutes to make the entire camp fee worth it.  Our simulations focused on steady rein and weight aids and that was cool.  Our ground session focused on the game of the circle and building the ingredients for on-line flying changes.  My favorite part of the morning was when Carol demonstrated with Cricket.  I had questions about how to ask for more without being critical of what she's doing now.  In riding, we did steady rein and stretching, asking the horse to move forward into contact.  In my private session I wanted to work on maintain gait at the canter and Carol put me on a reining pattern of fast and slow circles throwing in some lead changes.

I have more detailed notes and will probably post more once I get back home and can process everything.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Final Countdown

I've said it before but this time I mean it.

I'm not ready.

And not in that "I haven't done enough with my horse this past year" kind of way.  Rather in the "holy crap, I leave tomorrow and I've only done a handful of the million things I need to do."

I had already decided on a minimalist approach to preparing for camp.  Even with that, there are certain things that need to be done:  feet, feed, tack and clothes.

My world got tossed around last week when, through a serious of strange and unforeseen events, my sweet kitty was killed.  I never considered myself a cat person and imagined that life would somehow be easier without him.  I miss him more than I could ever have imagined.

So to say I'm behind is the understatement of the century.

All that being said, beyond the stress and anxiety I am super excited about camp this year.  I feel like Cricket and I are the best we've ever been.  The last several days she's met me at the gate, going so far as to mosey over when she saw my truck approaching the barn.  I'm determined to just take her wherever she is and just have fun.

I'm going to take notes and maybe try to blog a little during camp. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Afterall, It's Supposed to Be Fun

At the heart of Parelli is the idea of playing games with your horse.  You'd think I would have figured that out by now.  Apparently not.

I scheduled a lesson with our local 2* Junior Instructor, Robin Harris, as a tune-up for camp.  I've been struggling with Cricket's on-line canter and nothing I'm doing is terribly effective.  Rather than count on camp to fix things, I set up a lesson.  After Cricket's little buck-up last week, I decided to include some riding in the lesson.

We started by just running through the games.  As I applied steady pressure to Cricket's shoulder, Robin asked, "Is that how you always check your porcupine?"  "Yes."  "Do it differently."

Huh?  I stood there, with a completely blank expression.

"How is your 'lead by'?"

So we did lead by the mane and lead by the leg.  Robin suggested incorporating more of this into our daily routine and to use grooming for checking basic yields.  The same basic challenge was issued regarding driving game so we did driving from Z3 and dwell only came when Cricket matched the energy I wanted.

The rest of the games were good and we deliberately omitted circles.

For the circle game, I showed Robin what we had and just how well it wasn't working.

We did a little on the circle but it wasn't working so Robin had me do a short range circle.  The idea was a 2 second lead it/energy cue followed up with a deliberate but quick phase 4.  Cricket gave me some great energy so we took that to the regular circle.

When I finally got the play dynamic right, Cricket gave me some beautiful canter.  Simply beautiful.  The first time I stopped her, I did so with a disengage.  Robin encouraged me to use more draw so we could both become more comfortable with that energy coming towards me.  The first time I asked, off a left circle, Cricket came in and jumped right, jumped left, reared a little and finally straightened up towards me.  I swear, with a lift of my arm to the right, I would have gotten the most beautiful FLC.  Going the other direction, she was much straighter.

Instead of wearing that out, we called it a win and moved onto riding.  We adjusted my shim pattern in an effort to alleviate the back pain I've been feeling lately.  I think it worked because I didn't feel a twinge or spasm during the entire ride!

Robin introduced me to the steady rein and using weight aids to move your horse.  The weight aids comes from Colleen Kelly and it's something with which I'm already familiar.  My dear friend Kathy has been certified by Colleen to teach her methods and we've played with it off and on over the years.  We played a little with canter and Robin helped me adjust my request so I could stay with Cricket during the transition and canter rather than falling behind and inadvertently driving with my seat.

What I need to remember:
  • Be more creative.  Cricket knows her basic yields so check those during grooming, haltering, etc.  Use play time to expand on those basic yields.
  • The key to Cricket's play drive is mental intensity.
  • She needs to understand the consequences for breaking gait and I need to follow through when she does.  If there's no repercussions for dropping to the trot, why should she exert the energy to canter?
  • More draw to bring back, less disengage.  Keep the energy flowing and forward.
  • If she offers her crappy 4-beat canter, do some transitions until she can move into a forward, correct canter.  Don't punish the crappy canter but find a way to let her know that's not what I wanted.
  • If she pins her ears, don't make her feel wrong but do something about it - change something to effect a change in her.  Foster the happy ears without criticizing the driving ears.
  • Stop making excuses for her.
  • Ask for the canter by riding the transition UP.  Literally.  Lift the inside hip a little and get up with her.  When Cricket offers a true transition, she's very up in her front end and I need to be ready for that on the first beat.
  • Be more particular on the small things - straightness through the transition, up or down; go when I say; whoa when I say.
All in all it was a great lesson.  Now I have camp in just under two weeks and then Wendy comes back in November.  I should be rockin' and rollin' just in time for winter to come in and shut everything down!  Ain't that the way it goes?