Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dominance vs Confidence

A horse's safety is his number one concern. Therefore to win his focus, you must first win his trust. This is easily mistaken as a need to dominate his nature, but that is completely contrary to your goal.
Trust is not given to the angrier and loudest member of the herd, but to he whom has the greatest control of their own actions. Patience, discipline and empathy create the safest leader. One who can control, calculate and act rationally in times of panic are the most trustworthy. They are the leaders who take care of the herd, and not just themselves.
To win a horse's trust, you must convince him that you are that leader. Calm, quiet, assertive and persistent, but also compassionate and caring.
A lead mare is the one who drives a disobedient colt away, but is also the first to welcome him back and show her care for him with attention and grooming.
Too often people attribute dominance and control onto their horses, and end up losing the vitality of trust needed. It is the one who walks away without a vengence who will hear hooves following them, not the one with hidden intentions to strike again when the opportunity arises.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trust in Me

A horse's trust in us is fragile, but deeply rooted from the start.
We are a great provider, a leader, a protector and a soul searcher.
It is up to us to give to the best of our great power;
with this great power we hold great responsibility.
But a horse cannot hold us to this responsibility.
Herein lies the greatest test for us as they are dependant upon us.
We must always strive to put their needs before our own joys,
we must always push to do what is right for them...
Even if it means we must not have what we want.

Responsibility is a great testament to one's own selfless soul;
as it can be exhausting, depleting and outwardly frustrating at times.
But as the higher thinking beings, we must persevere...
We must win this battle against ourselves, to save what is left in them.
Though their bodies are strong, their souls are fragile...
And once you break this body, a soul is soon to fall to pieces.

So embrace the thunder of hooves, not only when beneath you or towards you;
but also in its frantic scurry to and fro over grassy hills and over great feats.
Embrace the fiery spirit which cannot always be tamed at the hand of man,
which needs to be free and at it's own will.
But never forget your place in this horse's life,
as his giver of a quality life.
For this life is far too short for second-rate moments.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Survivor Sessions: Right Brain Extrovert and the Dark Side of the Arena

In this session I was working with Johnny, my right brain extrovert (RBE). On his good days we have few issues with spooking, but this particular day there was a very loud wind and hail storm outside and he was not impressed with the far side of the arena. So I decided to get some of his sillies out and then work on being brave in all parts of the arena. Of course, I chose to let him move at liberty. And for a right brain extrovert sometimes this doesn't work to the best of your advantage, as they often seek to have their hand held in times of scary. But I've found with Johnny that if I let him "run away" for the first few times, and then have to trudge back to me; he puts it together really fast that running away is way more work than being brave and standing still with me in the scary part of the arena. Thus allowing him to create his own values behind his need for mental control and discipline.

You'll notice that I let him have his run around, but then ask him to stay in the far end with me. And that's when we get to work; with a RBE it's all about focusing in on something other than what is scary! One of the two most important moves we repeat over and over; are backing up and disengaging the hind end. I am specifically asking him to put his bum to what is scary and back into it, so he has to think about the sounds being scary not just what looks scary. It also forces him to find some mental control for something scary behind him; a horse's natural instinct is to run from anything threatening, especially is it's behind them or they can't see it. Evolution made them this way, so we need to be patient when we're training it out of them! Also, disengaging his hind end to make sure he can trust me enough to cross those hind legs over and put himself in a vulnerable position. By repeating these over and over; you'll see how much more calm he gets as he starts to realize that he doesn't need to be in flight mode. I then start to ask him to walk closer and closer to the farthest part of the arena, in this way I can see where his fear threshold is and work from there. I never push him past his threshold until he is ready. I also take time to show him that I can be safe in that far side of the arena, and if he trusts to follow me around, then he can trust to come over there with me too.

By the end he is totally relaxed and walks all the way to the far side wall to me for a breather, and even cocks a leg to relax. To end the session I had him follow me away from the scary side of the arena as we "ran away" together, but then we also embraced the idea of running to the scary side as well. Making sure we're even on all fronts.

From here I can feel confident that when I hop on to ride, we'll be schooling safely and effectively so I don't create any negative moments in the saddle. I always like to make sure we fix any mishaps on the ground, before we get in the saddle. It's much easier to take back a mistake on the ground and recreate a positive moment there, than it is to cover up a mistake in the saddle.

I've always found I work best with RBEs, Johnny and I specifically mesh very well. I love taking the time to become a leader that he can be confident in. And taking the time to play with him on the ground continually reaffirms my position as a strong leader that he can work with and for, without having to worry about being a highly reactive flight animal.

Keep on keepin' on!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Turn Out Vs Turn Out

The longest standing battle for anyone in the show world is turn out.
How long, where, with who? Sometimes even why?

And today I' m all over why turn out should be your number one concern for your horses well being.
So let's discuss the big "why"...
Why horses need turn out:
1) Digestive Health
I know, I know.. how does going out in a paddock have anything to do with digestive health? A lot! A horse is a nomadic grazer, whom in the wild would travel roughly 30 miles a day, graze 16 hours of that day, and poop and fart his brains out in all different settings of the countryside. A horses' digestive system is meant to have food moving through it at all times, from start to finish it is designed to be doing what it does best; breaking up forage into yummy usable energy sources. Now what it also does very well, is create gas. And without moving around, literally all the time, a horses' digestive system can get stale and balloon up with gas pockets. Hello colic bills!
So all in all, I think you can understand why a horse would need to get out and move around. Having a nice walk around from grazing spot to grazing spot is great for pushing that food and gas along their digestive tract so it can do it's job right.
2) Locomotive Health
We all know what stocking up is, and we all know why we want to avoid it. And since we all know that the cure for stocking up is moving around.. we can all understand why turnout is important for a horses' locomotion activities!
3) Mental Sanity
A horse in work is constantly under physical stresses to perform, and constantly left to their own devices without any source of mental stimulation or enrichment in their stalls. This is why turnout is so important for their mental sanity. Being allowed out (ideally with other horses) allows your four hooved friend some much needed play time, to burn off some mental steam. Think about it, have you ever seen an Olympic athlete only ever leave their house to train at the gym? Of course not! They'd go totally bonkers. They go out with friends, even just out for a movie is a good way to burn off steam. So let your ponies out to play! Your performance depends on them having a level head, not just a bubble wrapped body.
4) Respiratory Health
Horses have very touchy respiratory systems and as such are very susceptible to breathing issues from dust, ammonia and mold. Being trapped in the same 12'x12' space with their own ammonia and fluffy farts isn't helping that evolutionary failure. So let them out to get some fresh air and exercise.
5) Social Enrichment
Whether we like it or not, horses are herd animals. And as such, need a herd of horses! Horses are very physical beings, they need to touch everything. Having a good roll is right up there with having a good mutual groom with Freckles down the aisle. Social enrichment is super important for the mental well being, as well as for their feelings of safety and certainty. Herd animals find safety in numbers, being forced to be alone all the time amplifies the need for safety rather than dampening it. If you have a super expensive show horse that you just can't handle out in a herd of rowdy geldings, consider getting them a companion.. a pony, old timer, goat? Someone fluffy on four hooves to hang with out in the paddock.

So I win, there are tons of whys for turnout, and all of them turn to the idea that maybe we should be trying to make turnout way more important than it is right now. Next is how?
The best place for a horse? In a group of other horses with a whole lotta grass to nom. In a perfect world, we all have 100 acres right? Yeah, no. So, again, how?
If you are turning horses out for the day, or for limited turnout; your biggest priority should be to get them moving while they are out there. If they are just standing in the field eating from the same pile of hay, or same spot of grass; they might as well be in a 12'x12' stall outside. The best solution for this is either with a well groomed grass field, or with multiple hay feeding spots. Feeding one flake of hay in every corner of one paddock makes a horse have to move around for their food, and increases their activity while outside. But you know what increases activity even more? Another horse to play with!

How long can be a hard one to tackle too; especially with the demand of labor forces and limited paddocks available. Again, the best is to let them out as much as possible. My guys all live out 24/7 all year round. And you know what? They are the happiest horses in the industry. SO happy in fact, that if you try to coax them inside on a stormy night (you know, because I have to humanize them and think a nice warm stall alone would trump huddling with your comrades in the cold) they protest, all night, until they can go out again. Because being together in a herd is their place to be. And they know it to the core.
But, if a 24/7 schedule just isn't do able, aim for the longest possible. They should, at the very least, go outside for a few hours a day. Being chased around the arena does not count, by the way. While that might take care of a few of the physical aspects of turnout, it's not taking care of the mental side of it. And no matter how you slice it, that's the most important half.

So hop to it! Make a turnout schedule that involves allowing your horse, be a horse! And the benefits will begin to pile up, and you'll forget why you even thought turnout wasn't important in the first place.

Keep on keepin' on!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ground Tying for the Win!

One of my biggest, most giganticus pet peeves with show horses is most of them have no ground manners whatsoever. 1.30m jumper, worth 80 plus grand but walks all over you, leaves you behind without a second thought, or runs you down for the closest feed tub. That, in my books, is totally unacceptable in any case and is something that needs more value in this industry. If your horse won't stand nicely for you and walk nicely beside you while respecting your space, why in the world would they respect you doing anything else at greater speeds or with you on their back?
In horse training, it's the little things that matter. And ground tying is a wonderful little thing that can make a HUGE difference everywhere you go with your horse!
It takes a lot of patience and calm persistence, but it pays off in the end. Worth every second of training, I promise!

So where do you start with teaching your horse to ground tie? It's easy. Start where you would normally have them stand for grooming and tacking up; ie cross ties, tie post, etc. But this time they are only attached to you, not to a solid object. Just hang your lead over your arm and get to work grooming away. For the first little bit you'll have a salsa dancer on your hands but stay calm and quiet, and use subtle cues to keep moving them back to your "grounded" spot. Each time they stand in that spot without thinking about moving or shifting their weight, reward them with praise and treats! Don't have too high expectations for them, so you won't lose your cool, but have the aim at them learning where their grounded spot is. And as long as they are in it, they get some positive reinforcement for being so wonderful! Your first few cracks at it will show a learning curve and while it may be super frustrating at first, keep calm and keep it positive so they'll catch on to the happy place. After about 3 or 4 sessions you should start to see some wonderful improvement, and you'll be able to start moving around them while they stay grounded.

From there, just work at it every time you bring your horse out to play. Don't rely on cross ties and tie posts to force your horse into standing, work at teaching them some mental control, patience and discipline! This works out great later for liberty work, it also acts as an immediate precursor for training your horse to respect your space and walk beside you calmly. You might not know it, but by deciding the terms, asking your horse to follow your lead of standing where and when and then rewarding that action; you are becoming a confident leader for them. And the benefits of that are never ending. Ground tying can become a useful tool to have at shows, clinics, schooling trips off property and for just hanging around the barn; whether it be to prepare your horse for tying, needing to leave your horse with a "non horsey person" to walk a course, or maybe because you forgot something on the trailer; a horse with patience and the know how of when and where to stand is an invaluable tool!

All 3 of my boys have learned to stand during grooming and tack up, as well as "wait around while mum gets her life together" before we play or ride. But none are so perfect as my Johnny bear. Given I've had the most time to perfect his ground tying, he is a prime example that ANY horse can learn to ground tie. When I first got Johnny he used to step all over me, he'd panic at the smallest things and even cross ties made him super nervous. So I started small and over time he's become a very patient man; and braver because of it. He is to the point where I can leave him ground tied in a field to go get something I left on the side lines and he'll wait patiently for me to return; he won't even bend down to nibble grass until our session is over. Now THAT, is respect.

Just for fun, I made a silly video of him ground tied during our grooming session the other day. The arena was very loud and he was not impressed with the storm outside, but he still stood like a gentleman while I groomed away.

Now come on, tell me you don't want a horse that stands so wonderfully (and is so handsome) while you work away?

Til next time...
Make good choices and play with your horses!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spirited Away

Finally had some time out to the barn today to play with the boys!
Took a couple of quick videos as I start my attempts in video blogging our sessions together.

In a follow up to yesterday's blog, Spirit is a LBE! And his left brain dominance usually drives me totally bonkers. But today he was a sweet angel. I haven't been able to give him as much attention as I would like this past winter from bad scheduling to bad weather. But he was very much on the ball today, even with the rain and wind storm outside. I have a very good feeling about him, and our progress together keeps me positive. Though he suffers from severe chronic rude ears... He's coming along and is trusting me more and more every session.
Our first few sessions together I had to have my coach in to save me, as I wasn't sure how to deal with his fear aggression at the time. He would violently strike out, rear and buck at you if you asked him to do anything he didn't want from you. And his super fast feet made him even more unmanageable because he would get away from you so fast. But Lindsey knew just how to handle it, and after a couple of sessions to get him to understand that aggressive behaviour was not tolerated, he came around quickly. He's spent almost a year with us now, and is a happy little band member in a group of geldings and brother to my two thoroughbreds. I've only ridden him twice so far, mostly due to lack of time, but also due to lack of confidence in him. He has these scary moments when he pins those ears and throws his head... I like to make sure all of that attitude is dealt with on the ground, before making any kind of progress towards riding. Every little bit can be handled on the ground to make sure every second in the saddle is positive! His past for being ridden isn't too positive unfortunately he was allowed to get away with dangerous herd bound behaviour and managed to buck his past owners off more than a few times. So now I want to make sure every second in the saddle is happy, positive, and not a single buck could be had.
So here's a quick video from our play session today. I don't usually play at liberty for the whole session, but because of the loud weather outside, I opted to keep him at a distance... But as you'll see, we really clicked today and I trusted him to come in close and play follow me right along my shoulder. This was a first for us, as he is usually too rude to get too close to. So proud of him! And I have to admit, I have finally fallen head over heels for his cuteness.

As always, much love!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Horsenalities in the Show Industry: Left Brain Extrovert

Working so closely to the show world within the equine industry has given me many different view points to how horses "work" in such a high stress environment. It's most interesting to me how many of the same personality types I see in the coaches, trainers and riders... but also how many of the same horsenality types I see in the stalls from day to day.
The best athlete is one who can push through hard times, both emotionally and physically. But in horses we often over look the mental capacity needed for such a strenuous and demanding job; none so much as the show horse. A show horse spends 99% of it's time in a stall, and more often than not never gets to touch another horse in it's "up time". They are expected to perform physically on a daily basis without a thought of their own, and must fall into obedience without question. This is far from ideal for most horses, but is the most detrimental to that of the left brain extrovert (LBE). This is a busy body, busy minded horsenality that not only needs to be right, but needs enrichment! It's easy to pick these busy mouths out of the barn with a quick glance: they are the ones banging on stall doors, chewing on everything (and everyone) within reach, and often the ones who start to "revolt" when the goings get rough. The LBE however, is one of the more sought after horsenality types for the show world; by pure performance ratings. An LBE is braver by definition and has a great work ethic, when their energy is guided to the right outcome. But when it gets left to it's own devices in a stall, that LBE energy spells disaster. From tearing blankets, nibbling on handlers and reaching extremes of self harm accidents; the LBE needs to put that energy somewhere. And what better place than at the end of a lead line, playing some games!

Playing ground games with your LBE before schooling under saddle is one of the most effective ways to improve your schooling results. Instead of hopping on and trying to "run out" all that pent up energy, you can put it to good use and teach him something new! A left brain extrovert wants to move his feet in his direction of choice, so fighting with gadgets and dominance won't work to get his mind straight. The best way to bring him back onto the playing field with a level head is to direct that sure headed and quick hooved energy into some games that YOU can win. This will help establish respect from your LBE, as well as develop his need for leadership from you, instead of him trying to convince you of the opposite.
Here are my favourite games for the LBE; try them on the lead line or at liberty!

I am the first to look to liberty work when starting out with any horse; I love creating a safe environment for myself and my horse, and nothing says safety more than space! But I also love liberty work to start every session as it allows me to better gauge when my horse has decided to work with me as a partner.

"Join up" is the first and foremost of every session; a little free lunge around the ring to get some beans out... but it needs direction! Too many people just chase their horses around thinking they are getting some energy out, when really they are putting in more energy then they are getting out. Chasing a horse without direction constantly invokes the flight response from them, and that is not the outcome we are looking for. We want them to trust us, not fear us. Join up allows the horse free movement to choose their pace, but you should be the one deciding the direction. Have a plan in mind, and stick to it! You decide when the horse goes right, and when they get to change to go left, and vice versa. Not the other way around. If your horse goes to change direction, you need to redirect them back to your chosen direction. You'll probably notice with your LBE that they often choose the "fight" response when you first get going. This looks a lot like a cheeky head toss, snaking neck, maybe a buck or two and even a striking front hoof. Your job is to get them out on the rail and keep moving. Be kind, assertive and consistent. Once you have the horse moving around you in rhythm, you'll start to notice their gestures change from a "fight or flight" to a calculated and rhythmical dance. They will start to relax into the rhythm and begin to trust your presence in the middle of the circle. From here you'll need to look for when they ask to come in to you...
Monty Roberts shows a wonderful example of "Join Up" here:

Once you've had your horse join up with you, you can decide to stay at liberty or move onto the lead line. This decision is personal, but can also be for safety reasons.. if you have an aggitated LBE you may choose to keep them at a distance as you play to avoid misplaced energetic strike outs, or to keep them close so they can't turn their bums to you in protest. Either way your next mission should be to teach your horse to disengage their hind end.
To do this you'll need a carrot stick and a lead line to start.
While facing your horse, lean to one side and place all of your "energy" onto their hind end. Your goal is to have them swing that hind end away from you and square their shoulders up with you again. You are asking them to step away from you, but also to cross their hind legs as they step away. By doing so, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position; which in turn is showing their trust to you as their leader in that instance. This is very important for a LBE to accomplish with you; they are giving up their dominance to you by moving their bums away, and also their trust in you by crossing those hind legs.
Now unless your horse is super sensitive, or trained for this movement already; you will likely need to up the motivation from just your energy at their bum, to some air pressure from your carrot stick, and upping the levels of pressure to touch until you get the desired response. Always remember to start with the ideal cue first, and move up your levels one at a time. That first cue will eventually become the only cue, so make it a good one! Also remember to stop cuing your horse as soon as they THINK about giving you what you want. We reward the slightest try, and then progress forward from that thought into rewarding the action.
Make sure to bring some treats with you for your LBE, we all know they are motivated by food.. and what better prize for becoming your new partner than a nice carrot treat.
I'd like to take a sideline here for a moment about treats, as so many people disregard the importance of positive reinforcement with horses. Especially for LBE's since they are already quite mouthy. And my response to that is: it's not the treats fault and it's not the horses' fault... so guess whose fault that is? ;)
When used correctly, and given at a sanctioned time as a reward for trying and good performance, treats can be a god send.. especially with an LBE. Be picky about when you a give a treat, be picky about how your horse takes that treat from your hand, and be picky about how they respond afterwards. What I mean is; don't let them mug you for a treat. With my horses, I give treats in training at two monumental phases: 1) the "I just tried learning something" phase and 2) the "I'm not asking for a treat" phase. For the first, I give a treat immediately after my horse has thought about trying something new. For instance; I just taught my newest OTTB how to back up from waving my finger. I gave him a treat the second he leaned his weight backwards and thought about going backwards. It encourages the thought process in the right direction for the next time I ask for the same thing. And for the second instance, I only actually give the treat over when I am not being mugged for it. My horse must stand calmly and put together, respecting my space before he gets a treat; not when he's shoving me over in search of a free grab bag.
Okay treat rant over, back to games!
Another great LBE game is more of a mix and match game. Once you have an arsenal of games under your belt, and the language to use them. Start one game, and half way through jump to another... be consistent in your language, but start to be unpredictable.. and then at some point, let your horse take the reins for a bit! Where do they want to go? What game do they like to play?  Make it about their decisions for once, even if it means letting them graze for a few before moving to a new spot in the field. An LBE loves to have their brain pet, and nothing fulfills ego fluffing better than follow the leader with exuberance!

Just because you show high level and need to bubble wrap your horse, doesn't mean your horse can stop needing an outlet. They are still horses under all that show gear, and if you want the best results; you need to put in the best training! Physical conditioning is only half the battle, get to work on leveling out that inner mental battle so it can help you out in the show ring! A level headed athlete is ready for anything; even a big red ribbon.

Be sure to share some of your fun LBE stories with us!
Much love!