Hocus Pocus: shape-shifting into healthy movement

This spring I was lucky enough to purchase a horse who I loved many years ago but thought I would never own. Hocus Pocus is a tall, black and white, Saddlebred/Friesian cross who was mine to train from the ages of two to three. Even as a Hocus Pocustwo-year-old, he was the sort of horse who was thoughtful and kind. He was such a good learner, and so easy to train, that I called him my “yes” horse. I wanted very badly to buy him for myself but he had been purchased to prepare for sale, and I knew I could never afford him. This year, seven years from the last time I saw him, his owner now with both a young child and a business to run, decided she just couldn’t offer him the time she felt he deserved. When she contacted me to say he was for sale, I arranged to go see him with a check and a trailer. I wanted to welcome him here at Idle Moon Farm to join the rest of my family.

The horse I saw when I went to pick up Hocus was obedient but rather checked-out. Instead of looking like a mature ten-year-old in his prime, he looked more like an aged horse. His back was dropped and his topline was completely wasted away. I hesitated when I saw him, but was set on bringing him home. We would address whatever physical issues were going on; I had decided there were no deal breakers when it came to him, though I wondered if my “yes” horse was still in there.  Here’s a picture of his back the first week I brought him home:
Eastwick Day One- 5-29-15You can see that the top of the individual vertebrae are visible, as well as the top of his sacro-iliac joint and a very prominent point of hip. He was going to need some serious conditioning to put muscle back in the right places and make sure he became stronger instead of stiffening into this muscular imbalance. People often believe, as I used to, that turning a horse out to pasture for six months or a year helps them to loosen up and  heal. But the truth is horses turned out to pasture tend to reinforce the same muscular patterns they had going into the time off. Six months or a year out to pasture often yields a horse who has the same crookedness or weakness, sometimes more pronounced, in addition to them then being out of shape. I wanted to start changing the muscles Hocus Pocus used in movement, preferably with a good head start before winter. I wanted him to have some mass to take him through the cold and over the slippery spots.

The first order of business was to get Hocus moving throughout the day, so he could do lots of walking and start to build up some muscle through easy, low-impact exercise. Once he was worked onto grass, we let him out onto our track system so he could walk and graze alongside the other horses. Having his head down kept him released over his back and allowed his tight, weak muscles to move through their range of motion and build up some strength. Having a paddock set up that allowed him to move as continuously as possible all day long provided much more movement than one human trying to exercise him ever could.

The second order of business was to teach Hocus Pocus a new way to carry himself posturally. He tends to be nervous in the arena, his head flies up, his back inverts and he braces his big brachiocephalic muscle on the underside of his neck. This tension limits his range of motion, stresses his joints and continues to atrophy the back muscles he needs for healthy Spellbound Hocus head downlocomotion. To begin to change his habits, I taught him to lower his head in the halt from the ground. The head-down behavior serves a dual purpose: it allows Hocus to self-calm by giving him a measurable behavior to concentrate on in the arena and it is the new gross motor pattern I want him to generalize and offer. There are other bells and whistles to add on, but the main pieces are there: lengthen your neck and release over your back. Before adding bend or asking for any other nuances in the way he moves, I want him to know one thing for sure: a lengthened topline is the right answer. When in doubt, start there. Click. Treat.

At first we spent most of our time in the arena in the halt in the head-down behavior. Every time I asked him to walk off his head would fly up and he would take short tense steps. After three or four steps, I would click him just for staying with me regardless of the quality of the movement and we would go back into our deep meditation within the head-down behavior. I would ask him to do three to five repetitions of the behavior, clicking and treating each one, until he felt calm and centered and ready to walk off again. Hocus Pocus had been caught in a vicious cycle. He was naturally a bit “startle-y”, which caused him to tense and tighten. The tightening and tensing up made his body uncomfortable, which caused him to spook and startle even more. Left to his own natural inclinations with no support or new learned response, he was only going to reinforce his old, habitual patterns of fear and unhealthy movement. Head-down offered him room to begin to change shape emotionally and physically. In this deceptively simple behavior there was space for a new horse to emerge. Since the behavior was taught and maintained with clicker training, there was the added relaxation of food and fun woven into the training sessions. Lightbulbs went off. Soon, Hocus Pocus was able to start lowering his head in the walk from a gentle slide on the lead. Soon after that, he was able to offer more and more steps in walk with a lowered head and his back Hocus Pocus- ST, week one, FD 2muscles working in relaxation. Soon after that, he began to breathe normally again in the arena space and he stopped spooking at noises and counter-bending to swivel his head around to look in every corner for danger. Very soon, I had a true partner who was motivated, relaxed and an absolute pro at stretching over his topline and keeping step with me. The entire process took roughly four weeks.
Some people fear repetition, but to really build a reinforcement history on a behavior, to make it a place where you and your horse can check-in, discuss how tight or relaxed they are, to use it as an anchor in a storm, takes repetition. Thoughtful repetition is necessary for robust learning and really cementing new neural pathways. Improved Hocus in arenaPractice makes permanent. The reinforcement history we have built around head-down has made it an absolute favorite of Hocus Pocus and he even offers it when walking at liberty from his side paddock back to where he sleeps at night. It’s not just a motor pattern, it’s a request to be paid some grain, a way to self-soothe, physical therapy and a easy conversation we have with tiny nuances being added all the time. Head-down is familiar now. It’s valuable to Hocus. It’s useful to me. It feels good to both of us. It has changed the shape, nuance and energy of all of our work together. And most importantly, it’s already begun to change the shape of his back. Here’s a comparison photo from our first week together, (left) and almost four months later, (right.) Hocus Back Comparison Photo

Hocus and I have only just begun this new leg of our journey together. It’s so rare to get anything back that you have lost; he is the first second-chance I have  had in my life. I want to honor him by keeping him healthy, helping him to be strong and teaching him how to relax and truly love his work.

A new year at Idle Moon Farm : 2014 : Balance

Yesterday morning as I watched Rumi cantering through the snow, totally relaxed with an even cadence, I thought how lovely it would be to ride him. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about riding him lately, his pasture gaits are really very balanced and full of impulsion and more than once I’ve just stood holding the hay in my arms while I watch him trot or canter with lovely control and variation within his gait. He’s a very athletic horse. He’s also a nervous horse who bucked a lot of people off when he was started too quickly under saddle. Before I get on him, he needs to have mastered many skills he doesn’t yet have. To do it well, I need a plan, both for individual sessions and a larger outline that helps lead the way to where we are going. Since it’s New Year’s Day, its a fitting time to lay out broad goals for all of my horses and release solid intention into the universe.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi gathers Sufi mystics.

Rumi :  I would like to work toward riding Rumi. This means teaching him the six foundation lessons: target, happy ears, back up, head-down, the grown-ups are talking (stand quietly), and stand on a mat. These lessons can be taught first in the barn where he is comfortable, then out on the big driveway circle and then finally in the indoor and outdoor arena. Once he is comfortable with these lessons and relaxed in either arena with all the foundation lessons, we can move to WWYLM (Why would you leave me?) on a cone circle. I’m excited to get to work on his physical balance because I think he’s going to enjoy the work. I suspect it will change him emotionally and I am eager to reach that phase. I will set a loose goal of sitting on him by this fall while he works in-hand on a cone circle with a header. Then he could have a few winter months off and we can pick up in spring and begin riding on our own in the summer of 2015. An eight year old Arabian certainly has a good 20 more years of riding.

Best of the Dragon, Vol. 1

Dragon: Dragon is the most educated of my horses and a very fast learner, so mapping out an entire year seems too large. He changes and progresses so quickly and has so much to teach me that I really can’t claim to know where we will be in six months. It’s a conversation based on what comes up during our rides. Currently, we have been working on and have achieved a very open, engaged walk that “has the trot available” within it. He’s using his back beautifully and becoming quite strong. His muscles have evened out and we no longer need our right side shim which balanced out his weaker muscles on that side. I’m learning how to keep him in balance in that walk and my goal is to be able to request that walk and have him be able to maintain it joyfully on the circle, across the diagonal, in half-turns in reverse and throughout all the “training turns” without losing a particle of impulsion. (Nuno Oliveira) We are working on brief trots when his balance in the walk is divine and clicking before there is any loss of balance.
In-hand we are working on haunches-in and shoulder-in, so we both have the feel of it in our bodies before we ride it. We are working on duration for haunches in and still fiddling with an ideal balance for shoulder-in. We are also doing much more trot work in hand, releasing Dragon into his own balance when he finds a good equilibrium and clicking him for maintaining that on his own.
For my part, I am working on my seat and own riding both in dismounted and mounted exercises as well as deep body awareness. I need to be as balanced, strong and aware as I am asking Dragon to be.

I graNt YoU 3 WiSheS

Djinn: Djinn will be five this summer, so it’s not too early to think about riding her. I already bought her a beautiful blue swallow tail saddle pad, so I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have been thinking about it. Djinn has already has learned five of the six foundation exercises;  I still need to introduce “stand on a mat” to her, but everything else she learned last year.
Even though she already has a reasonable foundation, I am going to review each exercise with special attention to how light she is and how *connected* she is within her body. She is a horse that can get “stuck” in her body and I want to feel like my lead/rein is literally just an extension of her body, even in higher arousal situations. So we will be going back through our foundation work to add in layers of refinement. From there we will move to WWYLM on the circle and then all the same work with the saddle on, as well as “mounting block games”, teaching her to line up with the  block. I really adore this little mare and I think she is going to look spectacular moving in balance. It will be interesting to compare the differences between her and Rumi as we look toward riding – how they both need to learn the same things, but likely need totally different aspects of the work emphasized.

English: Tarot card II Jupiter of Swiss Tarot 1JJ

Tarot: Tarot is the horse that pushes me to explore the outer edges of possibility and to use intuition first, guided by the good science of learning. This year I want to explore his feet handling issues more intensively so he can learn to be comfortable for trimming without sedation. I’ve put together a new protocol that I’m excited to get started on once it’s warm enough.  We’ve also began de-sensitizing to the fly spray, which he’s shown continuous improvement with, until it became to cold to spray a liquid into the air.

I like to balance out working on fear issues with more emotionally easy and enjoyable work for him.

Tarot has learned all of his foundation skills to fluency, so we will be starting more work in-hand. We will start by reviewing his skills in the indoor arena and then move to WWYLM, which he had 3 or 4 sessions on last year. I am excited to explore balance work with him, to see him grow stronger and for him to feel powerful in his body in concert with a human. Humans have taken so much power from him and restricted him so frequently. I am interested to see what he has to say about this piece of the work in particular.
I am also interested to explore shaping on a point of contact and the deep tactile listening it develops. There’s something that opens up down the lead or rein when you and the horse are concentrating on that same point of contact, it’s like your nervous systems become one circuit and the feeling is indescribable. I want to know if that is possible with him. If it happens, I will know someday I can ride him.

Title page of Three Hundred Aesop's Fables

Aesop: Aesop will be seven this year. He’s already safe and started under saddle and he’s a lovely, easy horse to teach. He is very light and responsive in-hand and actually has much more energy and impulsion in-hand than under saddle. It only makes sense – he’s been working with me on the ground for over two years and the level of refinement and solid reinforcement history shows. Riding is newer and he looks like a less advanced horse with a rider. He has a more common balance and still some questions to be worked out.  My initial focus for him this year is to help him transfer all those wonderful qualities he has in-hand to ridden work.

I am going to teach this through a few different “conversations.”

We will continue our work in-hand, focusing on “Three-Flip-Three” or connecting his hip to the rein. This will allow him to really step under with his inside hind and carry himself in a way that is correct and will help make him stronger and more “through”, meaning, his energy will move cleanly and easily from the push of his back hoof all the way up through his back in a cycle of energy. Once he is understanding that equilibrium better, I will add in trot work in hand with that understanding, so he can be reinforced for working in a gait with more energy, but correctly. He likes to trot in-hand, but he lacks power, so that needs to be added so he can carry himself and me.

I will continue riding but with a person at our head to work him in-hand while I ride. Aesop needs some help with accessing the same balance in the saddle as he has on the ground. A person at his head can help him with familiar cues so that he can find the same balance and impulsion and start to offer it when ridden. Like Dragon, Aesop is more advanced, so planning out an entire year would be too big. This work will take us about six to eight weeks, so will keep us busy during later winter and early spring. By summer we should have some lovely videos to share.

Those are my basic big picture plans for my horses. Teaching emotional control through foundation lessons. Teaching physical balance. Combining the two to create a reliable riding partner. Refining physical balance and tactile communication in an ongoing effort toward the centaur. Re-visiting foundation lessons to focus on and reinforce lightness before starting under saddle. Setting up new, functional behaviors for feet handling and basic husbandry in place of old, fear and anger based behaviors through unconventional teaching. Using good physical balance to build confidence, strength and emotional engagement. Using in-hand work to inform balance and learning with a rider through utilizing a ground person.

When you look at the list, in the end, everything is about balance. Clinicians talk a lot about being centered and working on yourself and then working on your horse. But what does that mean? It just means: learn to be self-aware enough to see what you are doing and know what you are feeling. Learn to understand the horse’s emotional states and how to help them shift easily between them. Learn to understand the horse’s horizontal balance so you can help them find strength and fluidity when they are having trouble. Everything I have as a goal for my horses takes them more toward “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” Horses are a shifting puzzle of behaviors, motor patterns and behavioral tendencies that can teach us exquisite observational skills and body awareness if we accept the challenge of learning what they need to be in true equilibrium.

Teaching horses to stand still by allowing a flight response

stud chainHow many times have you heard the phrase, “You better make him stand still!”?
It reflects a common belief system in the horse world; if your horse is afraid of something, the clippers, fly spray, a new blanket, he can only get used to it by being held in position, until he realizes it won’t hurt  him, or that he cannot get away. Common equipment like stud chains and twitches are used to inflict severe localized pain in order to deter horses from moving when the stakes are high. It’s part and parcel of the way things have always been done.
Part of this impulse to make a horse stand still reflects a reasonable safety concern. Horses are large animals and when they are scared and unaware they can be dangerous. Teaching them to stand still makes them safer to be around. Wanting to hold them in position is often just a natural human response to control a volatile situation and make it feel safer.
Another part of the impulse to make a horse stand still is lack of empathy. Humans just aren’t flight animals. A horse’s many fears can seem unreasonable to us brave humans, so we dismiss their legitimate concerns and over-power them with force. They learn that whatever they are scared of is less worrisome than the human with a chain over their nose. They choose between two evils, so to speak.
There is  a horse training book by Andrew McLean, The Truth About Horses, that clearly states that any “hyper-reactive flight response” (ie moving away, spooking or bolting) should be immediately “disallowed” by demanding a downward transition through the rein or lead with “as much force as necessary.”  The theory is, if the horse is allowed to express his flight response, he will become increasingly conflicted and difficult to handle. When talking about getting a horse used to clippers or other scary stimuli,  he states,” When dealing with nervous horses, care must be taken not to allow the horse to increase the distance between itself and it’s handler.” The horse must be made to stand still.

But is this really the sole truth? Could there be other ways to teach a horse to relax without inhibiting his flight response?

My stallion, Tarot, as many of you know, is an extremely cautious horse. He’s grown to accept many things – shavings bags flapping near his feet, ropes dangling, and me in my raincoat. But fly spray is something I’ve avoided. He allows me to wipe him down with a washcloth, so I’ve chosen to do that and get the job done rather than go through the process of getting him used to the sound, tactile sensation and smell of the spray. But, the other day, I thought I would see if I could create a training session for him that would allow him to offer standing still near fly spray by his own choice. I knew I had to set up the structure of the session so he could understand what I wanted, and offer him enough choice to foster relaxation. I knew he had to be loose, because I didn’t want to be holding on to the spray and his lead rope. He can bolt when he is afraid AND trapped; he runs off when he hears fly spray even outside his paddock, when I am dousing the wash cloth, for instance.
I decided to have Tarot loose and go in with my fly spray and my treat pouch. I would raise the bottle of spray up and say the word “spray” then begin spraying continuously, parallel to but not on his body. That way he would know when the spray was coming and not be surprised. He would be free to express as much flight distance as he needed to, he could gallop 300 feet to the other end of his pasture. He could also choose not to return and play the game if he didn’t want to. My clickable moment, if offered, would be when he either stopped moving away or chose to turn and move toward the actively spraying fly spray. Here’s what happened:

To be honest, this video begins at repetition number six. The first five went so well that I stopped training and went into the house to get my little video camera. That means I missed the really dramatic spin and canter away that happened on the real first lift and spray. The dramatic flight response also never reappeared, despite it being allowed and fully expressed. Once he returns to me, he gets a click and a chance to play a targeting game with my free hand, both as a bonus reward and a way for me to gauge him mentally. (Tarot “checks out” and does very weak targets when nervous.)
After three or four targets, I raise the bottle, announce, “spray”, and begin to spray again. From the video you can see that Tarot very quickly decides he can stay near the spray on his own.

So what gives? Why, when I let Tarot  put distance between himself and me with the scary stimulus, does he not get more reactive and, instead,  becomes more relaxed and quiet around the fly spray? The truth about horses is that allowing your horse to put distance between himself and you with a scary bottle of spray only causes problems if you train with negative reinforcement. It’s not a truth about horses at all. It’s a truth about a training method. Horses working in the negative reinforcement paradigm experience release of pressure or gaining some distance as relief. It’s the currency of that paradigm. Because Tarot is working for a click and a treat, something he actively wants, instead of to avoid something he doesn’t, he is willing to approach and look for what I want once he’s moved far enough away to relieve his fear. Using a positive reinforcement paradigm, the rules change. He can express his flight response and still learn how to stand still.

We have to be willing to look for new answers and revise our long accepted beliefs about these magnificent creatures. When we think outside the box, horses like Tarot, who panic in traditional training scenarios, are able to succeed beautifully. The truth about horses is they are brilliant learners if only we know how to set up the lesson.

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Rumi: A new horse at Idle Moon

Rumi day oneSeveral months ago, when my vet was here to sedate Tarot for a hoof trim, she told me a story about an Arabian colt that was born on her farm. Silver spent his first four years growing up in her pastures and life was uneventful and good. When he was four, Silver was given as a gift to a woman who had fallen in love with him. Two years later, my vet was out at the woman’s farm on a separate call. She walked through the barn looking at the horses after she finished up and she saw a thin, grey Arabian locked in his stall. It was Silver. When she asked why he was inside when all the other horses were turned out, the woman told her that everyone was afraid of him, so he lived in his stall. He was difficult to lead, spooked at everything and had knocked a few people flat over. Heartbroken, my vet came back with her horse trailer and took him back to her farm the same day.
A couple people worked with him, and though he improved, he remained unpredictable.  Dr. Mary was afraid he would hurt someone if she sold him as he was. If she couldn’t find a way to get through to him, she felt the only ethical thing to do would be to euthanize him. Did I think I could help him?
On Thursday evening, Silver was dropped off at our farm. My partner Sara and I decided to change his name to Rumi, after the the Persian poet and Rumi scratchmystic. We wanted him to have a fresh start and a name that offered him wisdom, imagination and possibility. Lots of room to grow.

He’s an interesting horse, very social both with humans and horses and he enjoys touch. He is also hyper-aware of his environment and that vigilance can cause him to forget where he is in space and what he is doing. He has concerns. But they are fleeting concerns, truly, and his recovery is good. He will work for food and he doesn’t have any stereotypical behaviors like cribbing or weaving or pacing. Like most Arabians he is intelligent and he understood that the click predicted food within two clicks. On his very first full day here it rained steadily and because he has little body fat he started shivering even though it was nearly 60 degrees outside. He had to be brought inside. We didn’t want to stack his triggers (mainly: new environment + lead rope + walking), so we improvised by stringing a temporary lane to funnel him into the barn. Here’s a short clip:

The video shows his general concern as well as how quickly he picks up on following my fist as a target. You will see that I wear a helmet when working with him even on the ground, as a precaution. He also has the choice to leave. If the environment is too much for him, he is untethered and can retreat. You’ll see him make that choice once but then quickly return.

Helping Rumi relax is going to involve time, tons of choice, and completely non-traditional set-ups that allow him to learn without triggering his fears. Lots of targets, mats and freedom. Good food, time with friends, room to exercise and allowing him a voice in his work will be key. As will listening to him and being responsive to his needs. My goal for him is for him to understand in his body and mind what his namesake wrote: ” Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”  ~Rumi

How to create a training session: part one

First ride of spring

Happy after our session.

I’ve had numerous conversations lately about how to structure a good training session. While the initial mechanical skills of training are fairly simple to learn or be coached through, the larger picture of structuring a session is more complex. In The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, he discusses hard skills versus soft skills. Hard skills or “high precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time.” In horse training, hard skills would be: click/treat order, treat hand remaining still between dispensing rewards, skilled rope and rein handling, and consistent and intentional body language on the ground and in the saddle.  Hard skills can and should be  learned from a live coach, if possible. They are finite and very measurable; they form the foundation of your skill set as a trainer.

Aesop rein mechanics

Using the rein to ask the shoulders to move over.

But, as you master your hard skills and move from working your horse in lessons to teaching him by yourself, you will need to have more soft skills so you can create useful training sessions for your horse. Soft skills are about flexibility, recognizing and creating patterns, breaking patterns when necessary, reading situations and adjusting accordingly. Soft skills are both what guide you in making a training plan and help you change that training plan in the moment so your horse can be successful. Soft skills are harder to learn because they are very subjective to the individual horse and learning situation. Keeping notes about each training session, being aware and responsive to your horse’s body language during training and videotaping yourself while your train for review later are all practices that will help you develop your own soft skills. They take time. So where to begin if you are just getting started?

Aesop on his mat

Aesop standing on his mat offering bend.

Kay Laurence, a talented dog trainer who runs “learning about dogs” differentiates between a teaching session and a training session. A teaching session is a short session where the entire time is devoted to teaching the horse one new behavior.  You will still be shaping or using successive approximations, but your focus will be on teaching your learner just one behavior or motor pattern. Teaching sessions are necessary and, in the early stages of training, make up a majority of your sessions. Think of your teaching sessions as installing the foundation or component skills of your horse’s program. You will use these components in more complex sessions later.

Aesop- rftg, right

Maintaining our line (duration).

Training sessions are focused practice where you will work on multiple behaviors in one session, usually toward a larger unified goal. Initially,  you should work on  moving smoothly between repetitions of your component skills. Even very advanced  training  sessions are made up of component skills, they’ve just been layered skillfully together. If your horse knows two foundation behaviors, you could do five repetitions of the first behavior and then five repetitions of the second behavior, clicking and treating for each repetition. The larger goal is just to teach your horse emotional flexibility in moving between different skills and to teach yourself how to gracefully transition between multiple subjects in one lesson. Make sure you can do this simpler training exercise before biting off something more complex. If you aren’t sure what component skills your horse should have, a coach or trainer can help you identify and teach those individual pieces.

Below, I have  video of Aesop, my 2007 BLM mustang gelding in a more layered training session preparing him for riding. I’ve listed the component skills we utilized so  you can watch for them as they come up. All of these are behaviors I will click and reinforce:

  • bend to the inside from a balanced slide down the rein
  • go forward from slight touch on your side (my ribcage)
  • bring your shoulders toward me from an opening slide down the inside rein
  • move your shoulders over and away from me from a lift on the inside rein
  • maintain your line once started unless another cue is give (duration)
  • stand on a mat
  • offer bend when standing still
  • target poll to fingers when raised above head
  • trot on a verbal cue

Combined together, these component skills add up to a horse who understands the cues needed to be responsive under saddle. He knows how to respond in multiple ways to the rein, how to use my body as a target, how to stop and stand quietly and how to offer the beginnings of softness. He’s ready to be ridden. In part two, I will explain and detail how to set up a training session to transfer these cues to a novel situation – riding!

Riding the labyrinth

English: The labyrinth at the island of Blå Ju...

I started trotting Dragon under saddle last week after all our balance work in the walk. I did it just as a “data gathering” exercise to see where he was both emotionally and physically in the work. While he remained round and engaged with me, I was disappointed that he still fell in on his inside shoulder and took giant Standardbred type strides that covered the arena in about six strides. He needed more guidance than I thought he would. The softer, slower trot I have in-hand was not yet available to me under saddle. On my end, I didn’t offer him a lot of help with his balance and my rein mechanics were far from perfect and mostly absent. I was just waiting for his other, more desirable trot to appear. If he could blog about me he would probably write about how surprised he was by my lack of support and information.

But the real issue is, deep down, I wanted Dragon balanced in his trot  so we could progress forward in a facile and linear fashion. I became so frozen in my disappointment about having “something to work on” that I was unable to ride him well for the rest our session. Oops.

Triple spiral labyrinth

Labyrinths, used by humanity for the last 4000 years, are a form of walking meditation. They often describe spirals and as you walk the labyrinth you find yourself revisiting your old footsteps and describing soft, curved lines. It’s not a maze to be solved but geometry designed to help you let go of your mind’s chatter and be present. There is one way in and one way out. There is no real goal, except the process itself. It’s soul work. Labyrinths have rocks to mark your path or are carved into stone so you don’t have to think too hard about where you are going. You are free to let go of your thoughts while you meditate on following the path set out for you. Feeling each foot as it touches the earth. Breathing as you move. It’s a place to inhabit your body and allow yourself to be fully present. Body prayer.

Arena work is  based on geometry too, circles, diagonal lines and different tracks but these are conceptual rather than physical. When we school our horses it can happen that we lose our geometry as we think about balance or we forget our balance as we think about our geometry. We can forget to be present with our horse when we get stuck in judging our performance or theirs. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we are teaching something new or learning something new. We all learn better without multiple points of focus. So how to make it easier?

I am building a labyrinth for Dragon and I – not a permanent structure but a visible, physical labryinth made of colored plastic cones and mats placed at different intervals. It will describe circles and straight lines in different configurations and offer us the opportunity to reflect on tempo, shoulder balance and the “balance beam” beneath us. A physical reminder for our trotting meditation. I’ll teach the labyrinth in-hand a few times first so it feels familiar and offers both of us information. And then we will ride it.

I am continually surprised by the parallels between mindfulness and good, transformative animal work. It’s not even metaphor, it’s direct correlation. It’s not a pretend labyrinth I will be building, but real structure, designed to provide deep meditation on physical balance. Designed to remind me to be present in every step of our work because the process IS the goal. Each new exercise Dragon and I encounter can have it’s own labyrinth built for it: one for canter, one for shoulder-in, one for haunches-in, piaffe and passage. Labyrinths for collected trot work and transitions. They’re not something you have to use permanently, but they help you to focus on balance through geography until the balance work is effortless. Eventually, of course it’s all just competencies in your body – knowing your geometry, riding every stride of your horse and helping him balance, moving between both awarenesses easily and changing the labyrinth in your mind to suit the geography that will best fine-tune your horses balance. Dragon and I are far from that kind of competency though, so for now, I’ll be building labyrinths.

Djinn’s hoof handling

snowflakeIt’s been a cold and snowy winter so I’ve been locked in the house doing far less horse training than I wish. Today alone the temperature might not climb above 0. I have to content myself with short sessions when it’s warm enough to train without freezing but I’m dreaming of green, long grass and daylight that stretches well into the evening hours. When it’s been warm enough I’ve continued to work on hoof handling with Djinn so we can get that skill set mastered this winter. Then, in spring we can move on to more exciting things like introducing her to the arena, walks on property and starting balance work.

Djinn isn’t a horse who has ever worried about her body being touched, which is a nice change of pace for me from my other mustangs. She has yet to be reactive to any touch, grooming or space. She likes touch and she feels generally safe around people. She came to me this way, likely because she was captured as a yearling, and spent so much time in close proximity to humans who fed her vast quantities of alfalfa and carrots. In fact, she was so trusting that she might push you right over on her way to do something else. So, we’ve done a lot of work around moving forward and back on the lead, keeping her head to herself and how to stand quietly. She has done beautifully with that work and it was time to move on to hoof care.

Most humans don’t properly understand how vulnerable a horse is when they offer their foot to you. As a prey animal flight is their safety. A held foot is a trap on a very basic level. As humans who think conceptually and big picture we instinctively scoff at this idea. We know that we are only picking up our horses feet to clean them out or teach them how to be relaxed for a trim. But how many of you have seen a horse with a leg trapped in a fence thrash and fight like their life depended on it? Relaxed foot handling is learned. It’s not natural but it can be taught fairly easily. The video below shows Djinn’s third session with her feet being held:

I had already taught Djinn to pick up her foot off a soft touch of the whip on her leg and to hold it up in the air with duration on her own. She could do this on a verbal cue “foot” so I felt confident changing to my hand cupping her foot instead of my whip against her fetlock. She didn’t seem too nervous about me holding her foot, but she did take her face off to the outside, which is a low level sign of discomfort. I hold the foot quietly, make sure I’m not adding tension to the situation by making sure I have a loose lead rope and I click her AND release her foot when she brings her face back to the center of her chest. There are two rewards here: the food – which is a bonus reward –  and giving her back her foot- which is a  functional reward. A good trainer is always aware of both. After several good repetitions I let her walk off and move her feet. Standing still is hard, especially for a young horse so I don’t want to take advantage of  her good behavior by asking for too many repetitions.
I stop her in the same place to work on her right side. She is less confident on her right and needs a gentle tactile cue of my sliding my hand down her leg to give her the idea of lifting her hoof. Since just getting her to lift the hoof was more difficult, I’m not going to be greedy and hold onto it too. Once her lift on the right is as immediate and easy as her lift on the left, I’ll raise my criteria and hold onto the hoof.

Djinn is a far cry from the emotional, barging, biting mare she was when she first arrived here from the BLM last summer. She came here unafraid of people but also unable to receive information from people. She didn’t know how to be directed. She was always frustrated and impatient and pushing for what she wanted. She has relaxed and become quite calm now that she understands how to look to her human training partner for cues. She’s starting to seem much more like the grown-up 4 year old she soon will be than the immature 3 year old she was when she arrived here.