Riding is Hard, but it’s not a Battle

Maybe let’s not even quite so much attack the jumps, either, Eli. (SGL Photo)

To make up for losing a Saturday to bad weather, I schooled with my trainer Wednesday afternoon. It. Was. Difficult. Eli and I warmed up fine, but we struggled with pretty much every part of the jumping portion. We had to regroup on the flat a few times in between fences. I felt frustrated at times, but also very happy with my horse when we did get what we were going for. There was a lot of circling and transitioning, and at one point I even said I was having a bad day! The wind wasn’t helping either — it was hard to hear my trainer sometimes.

But, never once did I see the struggle as something my horse was causing. Never once did I have thoughts assigning blame to my horse for things going wrong. Never once did I see the struggle as a battle between me and my horse. We may have been challenged by the deceptively simple the fences, but we were in it together.

Did I have to halt hard a few times? Yes. Did I have to pony-kick with my right leg once or twice? Yep. Did I make many, many mistakes? Abso-effing-lutely. Were Eli and I on the same page all the time? No … but we got there eventually. Isn’t that the whole point of a lesson? Learning from mistakes, correcting what isn’t desirable into what is? Achieving the goals for the day by the end, even if those goals seem simple? My trainer is teaching both me and Eli. I am working on NOT sitting two strides out from a fence. I am working on transitions with Eli to get him lighter in the bridle through the corners. Eli is as responsive as can be provided I ride him correctly. We still have light years to go until we can be consistent over a course of jumps in the hunter discipline. But we are getting there. If I stop sitting on him and just wait, he stops rubbing the rails. If I keep my hands forward, he carries us down the lines easily. If I use my right leg AT ALL he doesn’t drift. This is a lot of work and there are no short cuts. There is no bit that will make things easier and Eli lighter, and my hands most certainly fix nothing if I pull–pulling on a TB is pointless unless you are looking for heavy on the forehand. There is not a helmet that will endow my brain with timing. It is all practice, seat, leg, practice, leg, leg.

So peaceful as to allow birds to dine with him at his feed box.

But a battle? No. Eli is NOT my adversary; he is my partner. I can not understand when riders use language like “battle,” or “bad,” or “fight.” What exactly, are you fighting? Your horse? To get results? Think about what a battle is — conflict, violence, terror, death — is that what you want to experience while riding your horse, to get those things as results? Is that what you are experiencing when you’re riding your horse?

When I ride Eli, I am reinforcing the results I want by rewarding Eli: a cookie, a pat or scratch on the neck, a walk break on a long rein, dismounting after desirable behavior like getting a lead change without a thought … if he reacts in a way that I am not looking for, I question myself first, and usually find my answer. A horse and rider should be in harmony, a tête-à-tête in pursuit of a bigger jump, a more powerful medium trot, a gallop that feels like flying, or a consensus that today is a good day for eating grass and sitting in the sun. It means a lot of self-reflection on the part of the rider.

Riding means A LOT of self-reflection on the part of the rider.

How to Texas in Michigan Weather

My parents are from Michigan. In what I can only characterize as a stroke of genius, they moved to Texas in the 70s (and it had absolutely nothing to do with the Army. Nope.). So every time I say something about this winter of never-ending ice and wet and cold and fog and freezes, they just retort something about how I would die shoveling snow. Yeah. You’re not wrong, forebearers of Swedish, German, and Scots-Irish descent. My DNA may come from the land of ice and snow, but weathering these dank, dark, Moria-like conditions is not for me. No, really, I feel like I am in a giant cave of stuff I want nothing to do with. Where is the sun?

So, how does a Texan cope in this purgatory of dreary desperation?
1. Spirits. Self-explanatory. Flask optional. Be aware that tequila may make you a little too aggressive about demanding more tortilla chips for your queso …

2. Layer-up: Eli gets to wear his quarter sheet A LOT right now, and honestly I think he appreciates it, which is to say he doesn’t try to kick or buck it off. I wear a puffy vest under a puffy coat and groom while wearing gloves and sometimes I leave my helmet on for a really long time after riding because hunter hair keeps my ears warm. I may have driven home with it on the other day, but I can’t say for sure.
3. Stay layered-up while indoors. I wear my puffy coat at my desk at work and at the dining room table at home. I am just trying to recreate what 85F and sunny feels like. But inside. Where the heat is not turned up enough, in my opinion.
4. Scalding hot Mexican food. Slathered in scalding hot queso. Oven-warmed (or heat lamp, either way) tortilla chips are the appropriate utensil.

5. While we are on Mexican food, jalapeños. I put them on everything right now. On toast. On potatoes. On salads. I think they might be good in Greek yogurt …
6. Scalding hot showers: the only time I am actually warm.
7. Scarves … this goes beyond just layering up. I wear scarves everywhere year-round. In winter, I maybe wear two at a time. Then I can wrap my neck and my face from the nose down.
8. Keep a wardrobe of enough winter layers to satisfy a Sherpa in the backseat of your car because when the weather guy says it’s going to get up to 50 today, he means for like 3 minutes. The rest of the day will be like 36F and you might see penguins.
9. Fire. Fire pits, chimineas, grills, smokers … if you have to be outside, light something on fire and cook meat until it gets that smoky, crunchy char around the edges. And then eat it with queso and jalapeños.

And like any devoted Texan, I have added both “chimineas” and “queso” to my spell-check dictionary.

Vive les Barn Rats

Barn (left), Rat (center)

If you spend any time at all on equestrian social media, news, or lifestyle sites, you may notice a trend — “kids these days can’t clean a bridle!” “They won’t put in the time or the work!” “We didn’t grow up like this!” “Does she even know how to tack up?”

Eh … bullshit.

You’d think kids never do much around horses but show up, have the reins handed to them, ride in a very structured lesson, and hand the reins back to a groom so they can go get a latte or a manicure or whatever. From my perspective, from what I see at multiple hunter/jumper barns in my area, this simply is not true. It’s not true for kids from a variety of income levels.

Although nobody is allowed to ride in tennis shoes, at least not if they are going to put their feet in the irons.

What I do see? Young women as very professional working students, soaking up every ounce of information they can get from their mentors. Even younger women waiting for the day they are old enough to be working students. I see kids showing up early, and staying all day on the weekends to help with all kinds of things, like feeding lunch, clipping, turnouts, and tack cleaning. I see kids caring for their own horses and the lesson horses with equal amounts of love and consideration. I see girls helping each other, riding bareback, asking their trainers questions, following their trainers’ instructions diligently. Even better, I talk to parents who want their children to be sure to get those horsemanship lessons along with those riding lessons. Yes, it may not be everybody. But at the barns that I am familiar with, it is the dominant culture — knowledgeable trainers teaching their students everything they know, and students wanting to learn all they can, from how to ride a rollback to how to poultice and wrap a hoof.

I remember many of the names of the lesson horses at the first barn where I rode. This is Romper. Or Rompy-Stompy. She went in a kimberwicke. But no, I have no idea what I did last week.

Perhaps part of my experience is due to selectiveness: I wouldn’t want to ride at a barn that wasn’t like the barns I know. I was a barn rat and working student, too. Even into my twenties, I spent hours at the barn, probably helping a little too much to be honest, trying to ride everything I could get my hands on and expending considerable amounts of energy on my own horses (and still made it to class most days). And every time I see a kid like that it makes me happy. I see lots of kids like that.

There is no shortage of work at any barn, but just the same there is no shortage of barn rats who want to learn.

Revisiting the Longe Line

Eli took a spill while on a longe line quite some time ago — maybe a few years ago? After that experience, it was clear to me that Eli did not have good enough training on the longe line to make it very safe for him to longe, nor did he have the mental capacity to keep his shit together in a new environment without a ton of reassurance from me. I stopped longeing him almost completely, and did not longe him at all if we were off property. Not to stop longeing would have been extremely irresponsible on my part. We had to work from square one to get him to a better understanding of what it means to be on a longe line.

I got inspired to revisit this in writing for a handful of reasons. One, to consider how well my reasoning (and ranting) from a previous post is holding up. Two, getting Eli some exercise in the past few weeks has been a challenge because of weather conditions. Three, I ran across an excellent article about longeing safely that hits so many points I totally agree with.

I have never taken ground work out of Eli’s exercise regimen. I have spent time on the ground with him in the round pen (unattached), asking for different gaits, or just letting him hang out, not ever getting after him for anything, but rewarding the behavior I like to see. I keep these sessions to 15 minutes or less. I have also, like all of 3 times probably since he fell, put him on a longe line if he has been in daily turnout and constant work–so I know he’s not “fresh,” “wild,” or “high.” He still struggles with cantering normally on a line, but we can trot and walk very obediently now. At least, the very few times we’ve tried.

So then this stupid cold weather hits, and cedar season starts. Daily turnout and a regular work schedule dwindled to hand walking or grazing and limited turn out in a smaller space. In the past few weeks, I have only ridden a few times. But something I did try? When the footing was adequate in the small arena, and nothing else was going on, I took Eli for a short longe. Just 10-15 minutes, mostly asking him to stay at the walk or trot. Were we 100% successful? To the left, not really (it is his weak side). He was trotting along okay and then something set him off (anybody’s guess as to what) so we were back to Eli trying to full on gallop like a fleeing rabbit but on a circle. This is how he fell before, and what I am trying to avoid. I got him back to a walk eventually, after maybe 4 or 5 circles (it seemed like forever!) and I kept him walking for a little while before changing directions. To the right, however, he actually stayed quiet and listened! Okay, now we are getting somewhere.

Starting this week, we have gotten back to more regular turn out schedules, and the footing in both arenas has been good. Good conditions for exercise, right? Sure, if my head cooperates. Cedar fever is making that a little more iffy. My hope is to actually ride this evening, and whether or not I put Eli on the line before hand is yet to be determined. Longeing will never be a regular part of our routine, but I’d like to get Eli to a point that he understands that it’s work time and not a reason to panic and stop listening to me.  Although I wouldn’t mind if he threw a buck or two, just as long as he comes back instead of taking off. We have gotten much closer to that goal.

Starving the Shade

You really can’t live in the Western world today and not suffer in some way from anxiety. What American is not anxious about something, if not multiple somethings? (For example … the opioid crisis, gun violence, international terrorism, domestic terrorism, failing transportation infrastructure, racism, lead in the water of not just Flint but many American towns, tropical diseases migrating north as the climate gradually warms, rising sea levels, and oh yeah rent/the mortgage, to speak nothing of hurricanes.) There are many manifestations of anxiety, and if you’re interested in scratching that surface, you can find statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But within anxiety, there swells a strong current of existential dread, notably at the forefront of American culture and politics today, explicated to a certain extent in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The Golden Age of ‘Existential’ Dread.” If you interact with media at all, you can’t escape the venomous tendrils of existential dread weaving together everything from climate change deniers and creationists, to universal health care proponents, feminists, and the Standing Rock protesters.

However, there is another type of existential dread and it’s personal. My own experience with anxiety has a few facets and I did not discover until recently that a big part of why things make me anxious, why I have racing thoughts, why I regularly entertain graphic fears of losing things important to me … a big part of this is existential dread. It has shadowed everything I do every day. For many years, it controlled me (and given my taste in literature and film I have no idea why this never occurred to me while I was younger). For many years, I fought it without knowing it or knowing how to fight it effectively. I found some succor in two books — My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel and Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks. After reading I realized that what I suffered I did not suffer alone. And I knew I could change things myself (which included actively seeking professional help). I coveted and currently enjoy relief in some of the daily tasks I perform in relation to my dog and my horse. Horses, especially, can be a pleasurable,  purposeful, and constructive outlet for anxious or obsessive-compulsive energy. Horses don’t sink into murky anxiousness never to be heard from again, they just are, and they live in the moment. Clear your head and bask in their immediacy of existence and try to learn that ever-presence from them.

why get mad at the wind from patentlybay on Vimeo.

The burden of existential dread, however, is not assuaged wholly by fussing over my animals. The animals help A LOT and drive my motivations for doing basically anything. But there are still at times nagging feelings of “why” and “what if” that darken the ether around me. And this shade forever skirts total demise. Perhaps without it, I am not me.

Yet it no longer rules me.

Partly because of cognitive behavioral therapy and partly because I have embraced gratitude, I no longer spend hours ruminating on all the bad things ever. If I dwell on a thing, it must be a thing of beauty and must improve my life, or it doesn’t get an iota of my time or energy. This is a conscious choice. Anyone can make it. Every dumb article you read on click-bait websites about pop psychology probably says that happiness is a choice. And they’re right. Even when locked in struggle–with people, or work, or finances, or family–happiness is there to be had because your mind is that agile. My mind is that agile. I control what energy I put toward that which would otherwise dim me in shadow. I keep that energy for myself now. There is now no shade capable of consuming me.

If you think you can’t do this, know that you are wrong and you can do this. Maybe not easily, but you can do this.

Walk Work

For the most part, I have left Eli’s walk alone. On a long rein, it’s fine unless he’s cranking his head around one direction or another and popping a shoulder … okay, yeah, we need to work on the walk. Finally.

Get your stroll on baby

We have been doing more walking in general. I walk longer at the beginning of the ride, mostly still on a long rein. And then more walking at the end of the ride, not just to cool out — before that. We try lateral stuff (very poorly), smaller circles, just trying to have a forward, engaged, STRAIGHT walk. The forward part is fairly easy, at least.

One of the most useful things I can do with Eli while working at the walk is to teach him to halt with his hind end engaged. As I ask for the halt, Eli tends to poke his nose out and hollow his back, and for years I have done little to nothing about this. We had other challenges to focus on and I wasn’t about to addle his inscrutable brain about it and just end up with a jigging horse and getting nowhere in other gaits. At the trot and canter, we worked on upward transitions, rideability, stretching, relaxing … things we can work on at the walk, too. Maybe I have a backwards approach and I know a good walk is important, but getting a good trot and canter were the path of least resistance.

I ran across an article I really take to heart, and I encourage everyone to read it. Holly Hugo-Vidal writes on the difference between strength and education in the aids. Of course we all aim for self-carriage, but getting there is a long and never-ending journey of using aids effectively to create lighter, uphill gaits and a confident, compliant horse. So much of the article–basically every sentence–made so much sense to me; with my personal experience I could relate to the examples easily. (Plus, agh, I would be devastated if I ever even accidentally marked a horse with my spur! I hate that I have even ever seen it.)

Eli is not by any means dead to the leg, but he can get a bit resistant or dull about bending to the right. An active, light leg has gone a long way to help with this. The longer we work together, the more Eli understands what the leg means. Early on in our partnership, Eli struggled with understanding leg aids, and of course I was overdoing it a bit, too–I distinctly remember one time schooling over fences where I tried to push him over to the left with my right leg and he just shot forward–it was all he knew. And I realized that my own leg was not educated enough at the time to communicate well with this horse who did not understand or interpret the leg well.

Over time, we have gotten much more in sync, and Eli responds accordingly to my leg aids the majority of the time. We have taught each other, I think. I can now use my right leg to push him left and he moves laterally much better, without the leg startling or confusing him. This hasn’t been some on and off switch, and no single component of the puzzle fell into place and everything clicked. It has been a steady process, one in which Eli and I both have frustrating days but they are now rare.

Icing daily until it’s not Death Valley here.

We did, however, have one on Saturday. His flat work was fine, but once we started over fences, he got less and less rideable and I had not been mentally prepared to work through that kind of day on Eli. In all fairness, there was a lot going on–Eli had not jumped in over two weeks, and I had ridden him only twice over the course of the week. There was construction noise coming from an adjacent property (truthfully I think it might have been giving everyone, horse or human, a headache), and some traffic in the arena all came together to unravel us both. I had not initially put on his running martingale, but I did take him back down to the barn to put it on him, and while it helped some, mostly we couldn’t accomplish anything.

I took Sunday as a do-over for Eli. We worked basically on the exact same fences, through the same process we’ve been using — trot fences, trot in and canter out of some lines — and it’s like Saturday never happened. I had my happy horse back, who was still a bit goofy coming off a 3′ oxer, but whatever, he was rideable enough for me.

This doesn’t come from nowhere. It isn’t random. Rideability is developed over time, with educated use of the aids. The less the rider and horse know, the longer it will take for rideability to develop. It has taken years for me to develop it in Eli, but most days I consider him very rideable now.

Rideable AND extremely adorable

And so now we work on this same rideability, this same compliance to the aids — at the walk. Perhaps I should have started with that, when I first started riding him. But I think with a forward-thinking thoroughbred, the walk can be the most difficult gait for them to work on and develop into something correct and engaged. Rather than inadvertently get him upside down and backwards at the walk and possibly the other gaits, I left his walk alone all this time. The difference is that now, we are both confident in our level of communication with each other that the walk is something we can work on and be successful. I am not saying we are successful yet, but we have to start somewhere.

 

Horses Can Think for Themselves

Both on the ground and under saddle, horses are expected to follow a human’s lead. Human does something and horse reacts in a way human wants, horse gets rewarded. Human does something and horse acts in a way human doesn’t want, horse gets corrected. Horse learns to do things human wants. This is a very black-and-white version of a very complex conversation between two species and I think some horses are capable of problem-solving beyond just reacting to a human. If horses weren’t smart enough, humans would have given up trying to domesticate them for riding, working, and companionship long ago.

Genius, right here

What does Eli do that makes me think he can think for himself? In our Saturday lesson he backed himself off the jumps without me doing very much at all other than staying out of his way as much as possible. The less I do, the more he shines over fences. He is learning that I am learning to make his job easy. He is learning that I will be there with my leg most of the time to support his efforts. He is learning distances and getting them much better than I ever will. He is learning from gridwork. Is he idiot-proof? No. But is he getting amateur-friendly? I think we are headed that way for sure. Although I couldn’t get him to land on the left lead, we did get a left-to-right change which is his harder side. I was so surprised! But happy. The more chances I give him to do something right, the more he responds positively. The “simple” theme continues. (Maybe I will actually get media of it next weekend.)

Human makes a bad decision. Pudgy bunny hops anyway. (5-12 Photography)

Even on the ground–probably more so than under saddle–Eli is behaving like regular sweet gelding and a pet. Don’t get me wrong–if a stranger invades his personal space unless a treat is immediately forthcoming he will pin his ears and bare his incisors, but all very lackadaisically. His aggression is nearly non-existent. I give him chances to do the right thing and it may take him an extra second or two, but he complies eventually. This is most illustrated by the wash rack. The wash racks are a step up from the aisles and are probably a bit spooky to a horse unfamiliar with them. For whatever reason, Eli needs a moment to think about how to step his hind feet up into the wash rack EVERY TIME. He always walks half way in and stops. No idea why after doing this hundreds of times he still needs an extra second, but I give it to him anyway. He steps all the way in with minimal drama, and I really didn’t have to do anything. Maybe some other people would get impatient with this and expect him to walk right in, and who knows what tricks or methods people would use to get him to walk right in, but I don’t much see the point of all that because he does walk in eventually. His terms are fair in my mind. Why pick a fight about something the horse isn’t sure about? Why not reassure him instead that this is no big deal?

Eli, by far, has taught me more about how horses learn than any of my other horses. This is partly because I am paying attention to it more with Eli–my other horses didn’t come with the baggage Eli came with as they were all 3 or 4 year olds. With Eli, it hasn’t been so much about teaching what to do as it has been about undoing some aggression to see what’s underneath all the reactiveness. I ignored so much of his weirdness early on and I think that has been the most powerful communication between us–I don’t draw attention to things I don’t like. Instead, I ignore them and go about my business, establishing a routine that Eli can count on. Yes, of course, I reprimand him for kicking out directly at me, but he does that so little now, and the last few times he’s bitten me were more like a foal nibbling a pocket for a treat, not aggression. But he has gone from a horse that couldn’t stand still to be groomed to one who stands for grooming and loves being curried (because ITCHEEEZ).

Thinking about all this didn’t come out of the blue–I think about this kind of stuff frequently. So when I found a “position statement” on social media related to horse training, I read it because that’s what I do. I am not very familiar with the International Society for Equitation Science, but I am learning more about the organization by exploring the website. I am fascinated by their position statement on dominance and leadership concepts in horse training. It’s not exactly a quick read, but I am pleased to find an organization that treats the relationship between human and horse as a science, and cites studies related to the topics they pursue. I am still digesting the import of the position statement, but I found a lot of things that ring true for me in my experience. Especially toward the end of the article, this:

“Some horse people believe that, to get the ‘respect’ of a horse and make the horse obey orders, the person handling it must be the ‘alpha individual’, i.e. in the top position of the social hierarchy. The person must be the dominant part of the relationship and the horse the submissive one. Even if horses had a concept such as ‘top position’ in a hierarchy, it is questionable whether that hierarchy would even include humans (McGreevy et al., 2009). Undoubtedly, part of the reason for these and similar beliefs is anthropomorphism (i.e. our tendency to transfer human characteristics such as respect and authority onto the horse). This attitude often does more harm than good (see McLean 2003 for examples).”

Be there carrots or lions in yon woods?

Why not allow our relationships with horses to have a novel language, not one dependent on the way humans think horses communicate with each other? My horse does not think I am a horse, nor do I want him to think that. My horse comes from a long line of animals domesticated for work and sport, and most definitely recognizes humans as agents of both good and bad things, like grain or whips–that is the very nature of domestication. We can communicate with horses in a language unique to the horse-human relationship, one that evolves over time, one that is informed by evidence-based, peer-reviewed concepts and methods, one that makes no anthropomorphic assumptions about a dominance hierarchy. Eli doesn’t walk into the wash rack because I’m the alpha. Eli walks in the wash rack because I give him a chance to.