Dragon under saddle

Since Dragon and I started back under saddle this spring, we have been working further on single rein riding. Single rein riding, as opposed to riding on two reins/contact, helps the horse learn to maintain the position you suggest for them on their own. This is called “self-carriage” – a term most dressage riders are familiar with but perhaps not totally confident about. It certainly is difficult to know if your horse is in true self-carriage if you constantly ride on two reins basically holding your horse in position. And it’s harder for your horse to understand as well.  Single rein riding is new to me, so I am still learning with Dragon. Surprisingly, our rides are still significantly better then they ever were when we were riding on contact.

We both have a lot to learn but the process is a lot of fun and we’re both enjoying ourselves.  Below is a short clip of Dragon learning to mobilize his shoulders. Being able to move your shoulders is an important component for upper level work because it’s necessary for lateral work. And lateral work is necessary to teach the horse collection.  I’m still working on perfecting my rein mechanics, but it’s still a nice clip of a fairly organized moment between us.

Loose horse!

This morning I woke up and looked out my bedroom window, like I do every morning, to find part of Tarot’s fence down. He had managed to take down part of the bottom line completely and to push the second line out of place. I scanned quickly for him but I knew he was gone. The fresh spring grass is just starting to come up and last year he moved a round pen about 4 feet just with the continuous pressure of his neck as he reached for one blade of grass and then another. Kind of like the heaviest grazing muzzle on earth.

Through the window I couldn’t see him anywhere on the property. He’s an easy horse to see , being white, against a currently brown and green-ish landscape. My heart was pounding as I pictured him galloping over roads in our town and large men trying to capture him with ropes, then shouting at me, “Is that your horse, girl? You better catch him!”  It sounds dramatic, but I know how wild humans act around loose animals. Like all the world has lost it’s order.

I pulled on my boots, my treat pouch and walked outside as fast as I could without running. All three of our other horses were looking off  with raised heads into a farmer’s field behind our barn, so I knew if Tarot wasn’t still there, he had gone that way. I grabbed a halter and lead  and headed out. Our property is lined with tall pine trees that obscure most of the view of neighboring land and break the wind in winter, so I didn’t know what I would find. When I came through the trees, Tarot was about 400 feet away, presumably munching on dead wheat.  I walked toward him in a roundabout way and halfway to him he decided to close the distance for me. He started walking toward me, so I turned and started heading back toward the barn too. I’ll admit, I was nervous if I tried to “catch” him,  he would think better of it and take off. I have worked a lot on haltering, but not loose in endless farmland. We walked back through the treeline to our farm. I clicked him and he stopped for his treat, calmly, just like we were training in his paddock. I asked him to target and he targeted, but too gently, which usually means his environment is overfacing him a bit. He stayed for his treat, then walked about 15 feet away to nicker to our mares who were at the fence.

I thought about going to get a feed tub of oats or strategy, but I decided to use our skills. I walked over to him and presented his halter. He put his nose in immediately and calmly and kept his head low even while I buckled the crown. For some people, haltering a horse who you have actively taught to self-halter would mean nothing more than the animal doing what it’s learned. Good training is one way to describe what happened. But good training gives way to deeper meaning. It’s the  reason I pursue any training, of any species. For me, Tarot putting his nose in his halter, is the glimmering edge of salvation.  [Salvation(n) : the act of saving or protecting from harm, risk, loss, destruction.]  My soul is protected from harm, risk, loss and destruction when a wild horse chooses his halter, his tether to to me, over open fields and two flirting mares. When he can say:  I trust you, I choose you , then I am saved. From what? From ignorance. From entitlement. From failure to imagine his reality. From the loneliness of being isolated in my own species.

My horse put his nose in a halter, loose, on the edge of open fields. He was born wild. There is no money I could make today that could rival, from him, his yes.

How many steps, exactly, go into haltering a horse?

I have been spending some time refining Tarot’s self-haltering behavior, making sure I didn’t skip any steps and “lump” any of the behavior. Lumping is when you try to teach behavior in too big of chunks and end up skipping steps, so the animal is confused and the behavior isn’t as solid as it could be. A “shaky tower” of sorts.  I had noticed that even though Tarot was putting his face willingly into the halter and holding it there while I threw the crown strap over, sometimes his head was coming up a bit when I reached my hand from the right to the left and sometimes when I put my hand to the buckle to secure it into place.  So I went back to the place where the behavior was perfect and made sure I had all my steps in place.  I had to start back at bringing my right hand down:

Once he could keep his head down with my arm dropping down, it was time to move it up to touch the buckle. Here’s that step:

So, our next step is the buckle, re-visited, with a low, still head. I was laughing at myself, thinking about how in traditional horse training I would likely be viewed as crazy. Who cares if the horse raises his head 3 inches when you latch the buckle? There’s bigger and better things to get onto, like riding! And, I agree, riding will be great, but not until we both think so. If I skip just this tiny step of making sure Tarot is comfortable with his halter, then I am ignoring his comfort level with equipment on his body. I don’t want to do that because his comfort is my safety, among other things.

The dream of a common language

Today our new barefoot trimmer, I’ll call him Bob, came to trim hooves and meet our horses for the first time. It’s always nerve- wracking for me, mainly because there is no common language with which to discuss horse behavior and training. It is a delicate dance to meet someone for the first time, respect their learning and experience while also setting out boundaries for how you want your own animals to be treated.

I was particularly worried about this in the case of Tarot, who is untrusting of anyone new. I had already planned to have him sedated for his first few farrier appointments so that he can enjoy the anti-anxiety properties of the sedatives, and not become even less trusting of people than he already is. He does let me near his body, and allows me to handle his legs, but it’s a skill he will need to learn to transfer to someone new. It takes time, whatever time he decides, not the minutes or hours that humans tend to offer. Last night at dinner, I was dreaming about a trimmer who I could call up and say, “I have a mustang who I’m still working on body handling with. We work at liberty so I know he is truly relaxed and choosing to be a part of this handling. I can work around his entire left side and handle down to his fetlocks, but I’m still working on handling past his withers on his right side. Since he is still not completely ready for handling by me, I’m choosing sedation initially to reduce anxiety and avoid losing ground on the training we’ve already accomplished.”  Simple, right?

It would be simple if the real issue in the horse world was only that we use different jargon to explain the same techniques. But the real issue is that misconceptions about horse behavior abound and the science of learning is not common knowledge. I am a bridge-builder and a peacemaker by nature but I am also unalterably firm about protecting my animals from un-needed stress or bad handling. So how to navigate the line between making people feel comfortable and valued while advocating for my horse who does not deserve one more confusing or fear-inducing interaction with any human?

I made a deal with myself: I would let the trimmer go in the pasture and meet Tarot with Tarot loose. If he could get Tarot to stand quietly and accept his being near, I would halter him. Now, I didn’t expect Tarot to stand there at all, but I thought it would at least give Bob a chance to meet him and make a judgement call on his own.

I should mention Bob ended up doing a great job with our other horses. He was relaxed, easy-going and comfortable with all of them. He did a lovely job trimming their feet, no one was stressed and I was really happy with the entire process. He is a patient man, comfortable in his skin with clean clear energy. I was not worried about letting him meet Tarot.

I offered Bob a few treats to take in to Tarot, but  he only wanted to use his body and space, ” just like another horse would.” I pointed out that it was likely Tarot didn’t think he was a horse, especially with the walking on two legs. He laughed but I couldn’t convince him to use the food. Tarot did reach his nose out to sniff his hand, I gesture I promptly clicked and treated, but nothing beyond that cursory investigation. Tarot was careful to stay frontal to Bob and to put his body behind mine when possible. No surprise. Bob then asked if I would halter him up so he could move him around a little and see what he could do.  I explained to Bob that I had just re-trained the halter behavior and it would be a betrayal for me to take this behavior I had built, then use it to hand Tarot over into a situation where he felt unsafe and fearful. He looked honestly surprised but then quickly recovered and said, “Ok, that sounds reasonable, we’ll just find a time where we can get the vet out and use the sedative then.”  Lots of points in my book!

Bob IS unusual in how relaxed and easy he is with horses, but he is not unusual in the belief system he has about training. The common wisdom of Pat Parelli which seems to have saturated the entire horse world, that the only way to communicate with horses is through taking up their space and rewarding them through rest, “just like another horse” has become a near religion. Of course it’s good training to use modes of communication that are ethologically appropriate for the species you are teaching, but it’s not the same as them actually believing you are of a different species. That takes it too far.  Tarot, who grew up wild, has no illusions about any human being a horse, no matter how savvy.  These systems people use are made up negative reinforcement,  positive punishment, and poisoned cues. But none of the horse whisperers are teaching the science, they’re only selling the magic. It’s a disservice and a cause for much misunderstanding. Learning can feel like magic – but if you are going to wield a spell you better understand it’s scope AND it’s limitation.

As for Tarot, he’ll be re-introduced to hoof care with the benefit of some sedation. Of course we are constantly working toward him accepting handling and new things, but I promised him I would honor his body language and his emotions, and through that, his soul. It’s the only road to trust.

Tarot : the beginning

I think the oldest dream I can remember is of taming something wild. Gaining the trust of an animal who had been unable to trust others. Bucephalus. The Black Stallion. Flicka. So when I saw an ad for a mustang stallion who: “Needs a lot of work. Needs work with picking up back feet. Beautiful fairytale looks! Gets along with other horses no problem! No “true” interest in mares – would rather eat =D”, I was intrigued. I did not need another horse at the time and was not looking to buy any animal at all. But this mature grey stallion was so gorgeous I had to know more. Here’s the pic that stopped me cold:


At the price he was listed for, I thought he either had to have hurt someone badly or was unrideable due to an injury. I called the owner and she explained to me that he kicked when you tried to pick his back feet, was terrified of saddles, and had recently started bolting on lead when practicing his groundwork. By all accounts he sounded like a mustang with an extremely strong “preservation instinct”  – which really boils down to extreme sensitivity to their body being touched/handled and a huge flight distance. No aggression, just caution and complete lack of trust. He sounded like a horse made for the clicker, and when she told me that the way to his heart was through food, I made up my mind to buy him.

Tarot got here mid-November and he didn’t move on to Idle Moon Farm until December. He was exactly as his previous owner said. Calm and careful. Suspicious of any man-made objects. Extremely careful about his body orientation to you – he prefers to face you so he can see what’s coming and there can be no surprises. But he loves food. And now he also loves the clicker. Please watch our journey together and enjoy.

Dragon offering his “hug” behavior

Obviously horses don’t hug one another like primates;)  However, I like to hug my horse and thought it would be nice if he knew how to hug back, so I decided to teach him using the clicker. I started with him putting his head over the fence and allowing me to hold his nose in place, c/r. Once he had that he naturally arched his neck a bit more and I slid my arm over his nose, c/r. Then I built duration by extending the time a few seconds or so that he left his head in the loop of my arm, c/r. And voila! I have a solid hug behavior that I now use everytime I leave the farm. I used to just throw a few treats in his bucket as I left, but now I can ask for a mutually reinforcing behavior and pay him for it.

Glasswing learning to back up

Here is a short video of Glasswing learning to back up. She is still not positive about wanting to work with me but is becoming more confident. Her mouth is so tiny that it quickly gets full with treats, so I am going to have to try tiny cut apples or maybe a pelleted hay based feed which she can chew more quickly.

Conversations under saddle

Dragon and I have been working on the ridden WWYLM game for the past three weeks, and the exercise has really opened up our “discussion” while riding as well as pointing out to me the flaws in my riding. The exercise is simple enough: ride your horse forward on the buckle while steering him only with your weight and your core. If  he deviates from the frame/guide provided from your body, pick up the rein with your buckle hand, slide your rein hand down the rein so it is taut between the two hands and anchor your hand to the saddle. When your horse offers a smooth turn, picking up your seatbones, click/reward and release.

Before this exercise, let’s just say Dragon wasn’t the most intuitive or sensitive horse when it came to my core/weight. But to be fair, I  de-sensitized him A LOT by not being precise enough in my riding in the last 4 months before I re-started him using the clicker. However, I can confidently say, he is now more tuned in under saddle then he has ever been in the past. He expects a constant conversation and is consistently relaxed with soft muscles and a long topline. For the first time he feels like the same thinking horse under saddle that he is on the ground.

As for me, this exercise has allowed me to practice engaging my core every time I treat my horse. I click, lean down to treat him, and think about “kneeling” – a great image from Mary Wanless to help riders sit correctly and open up their hip joints. As I sit back up I make sure to engage my core and “bear down”. Consequently I feel much much stronger in my seat and very connected to my horse. The repetition of the clicking and treating gives me a chance to check my physical sensation of whether or not my core is engaged over and over in a session, and at the walk where I have time to think about it. I love how this lesson serves both the horse and rider so completely. It also makes me completely aware of the moment he chooses to push through one of my legs with his barrel or loses track of my seatbones or , the opposite, when he is perfectly in tune with me. Click/reward.

Below is a short video of our progress: