Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.

Component skills for trailer loading

Last week my friend Natalie came over to train her horse, Harrison, in our arena. He loaded up into the trailer easily on the way over, but once he was done training he just wasn’t confident he wanted to get back in. He would walk up to the opening but once he got close enough to load his feet were frozen. Any pressure on the lead, even very light, was too much pressure. He would tense up and back away to a “safe zone”.  Like many many horses the world over, Harrison was likely pressured or tricked onto a trailer other times in his life. While strong pressure might work in the moment, it poisons the lead rope in the future. It’s no longer available as a tool.
Forty five patient minutes later, Natalie got Harrison on the trailer through patience and clicking for leans forward and back. Trailer loading was definitely on her training list for the week. We want to have her over at least every Sunday to train and it will be much more fun for all involved if her horse loads calmly and easily. Luckily, Natalie had already taught Harrison an exercise that contained the component parts needed for trailer loading. So once she got home, she planned out a new exercise to combine the skills he already had with the presence of the trailer to create great trailer loading.
Last year Natalie had worked with Harrison so that she could move any foot she chose forward or back just with a small cue on her lead. Harrison was having trouble standing square and to teach him how to stand in balance she needed to be able to influence his feet. We call this skill “needle-pointing”.
She also taught him to stand on a mat. The mat has a myriad of uses, but in this case the mat is used to reward Harrison for doing a particularly accurate or light job moving his feet. It is doubly rewarding as Natalie has the mat placed away from the trailer. For a horse who is still nervous about the trailer, getting to move away from it is a functional reward.

In the video you will see Natalie is walking on a cone circle with her trailer parked on the edge. This video is the second day she’s worked on this so we join her a bit further into the process. Originally, she worked on moving Harrison’s feet forward and back, or needle-pointing, out on the edge of the circle and then would go to the mat as a reward. When they would get to the point on the the circle where Harrison was facing the trailer and in the orientation to load, but further away, she would click him and then just feed him over and over for being near the trailer. It wasn’t dependent on Harrison’s behavior because it was counter-conditioning, or:  if you are near the scary trailer you get lots of good food! It’s an easy way to get relaxation in a situation that was previously worrisome. When we join her in this video she is further in her process and beginning to ask Harrison for his needle-pointing when he is approaching the trailer. She alternates those reps with needle-pointing out on the circle to keep the session light. She doesn’t fall into the normal trap of most humans, which involves making the situation to difficult too quickly and then being angry that she failed. She listens to her horse and progresses when he feels as light and engaged near the trailer as he does when he is working out on the circle.

Once Harrison is relaxed and responsive with mobilized feet near the trailer, Natalie decides to request that those feet move forward onto the trailer. Watch their fancy footwork here:

You can see that he is ready to get in the trailer because he puts his foot up right as he reaches the trailer. She immediately asks for another foot and gets it with no hesitation. If you turn up the volume you can hear her calling out what foot she is asking for next so you can watch for it. Basically she continues needle-pointing Harrison but this time he is on the trailer. She wants to make sure her forward and back still work despite the “change of scenery”. If they don’t she will know her horse is tense and to go back to the last step in the exercise where he was relaxed and able to offer all feet in all directions. From time to time she backs him out to give him a break and on his best attempt she surprises him with sliced apples in the trailer. Because of the two small pull backs he offers despite an otherwise lovely session, Natalie decided not to ask for back feet in the trailer in this session. She understood he had some small reservations left, and understands the fastest way to fix trailer loading issues is slowly.

The last video is of Harrison loading fluently into the trailer because of his mastery of smaller component skills.

Here you see Natalie halter Harrison in his pasture and walk him directly onto the trailer, no warm-up required. Once in he stands calmly and quietly and then is able to move one foot at a time when asked. This a good indicator of relaxation. You will hear Natalie say “drop” when he is at the edge of the trailer and about to take a step down. This way he isn’t surprised by the drop-off. Once he is out she releases him to go trot to his mat as a reward. Fun and easy for horse and human!

The component skills for trailer loading are just foundation lessons. Natalie has taken time building a gorgeous foundation for this horse and it shows.
The foundation lessons involved here are: go forward, back up, and stand on a mat. She combined those into the more refined skill of needle-pointing each individual foot and then added in classical counter-conditioning near the trailer for emotional relaxation. Harrison knows exactly what she wants from him and is happy to offer it. It is such elegant training I wanted to share it with you!

Teaching Aesop to love hoof care

I’ve had a few conversations lately with several different friends about the range of experiences their animals have had with animal professionals like veterinarians and hoof care specialists. Even as an animal professional myself it can feel scary to trust my horse or dog to someone else’s care who might not have the same ethics or awareness of body language that I do. Both the horse and dog world are still works in progress.  Empathetic handling is not always a consideration. Behavioral health often takes a back seat to “getting the job done.” This is a particular concern when it comes to mustangs. Aesop was wild until he was four years old. He’s only known a few humans, and the first few chased him around with flags and acted unpredictably. There wasn’t time for a relationship. Unlike many domestic horses, he is not automatically trusting of new humans. It is critical that he forms a positive opinion of as many new people as possible. It is critical that he views humans as safe, since he’s known so few. It’s my job to advocate for him.

The first step in advocating for your horse (dog, bird, newt) is teaching them the skill set they will need for their procedure ahead of time. You don’t want the first time the equine podiatrist comes out to be the first time your horse has their feet picked up and held for longer periods of time. Alexandra Kurland has a saying: ” If you haven’t gone through an active teaching process to teach your animal a behavior, don’t expect to get it on a consistent basis. ” Basically, don’t leave it up to luck;) Making sure your horse is comfortable in the cross ties, can lift all four feet and hold them in different positions, is comfortable with a rasp and is comfortable with a “new” person handling him is the bare minimum for a hoof trim. Standing still and balancing on three legs are skills too, passive though they might seem.

When my  new trimmer, Autumn, came out the first time I completely underestimated how afraid Aesop would be of someone new. He and I work together a lot but  since we aren’t at a boarding barn there’s not many new people to get to know. Aesop was terrified of being touched by anyone at all, including me,  with the new strange people in his barn. Oops! Autumn was kind enough to set up appointments with me every Monday so she could come out and handle Aesop and he could get used to her at his own pace. She’s been out three times now and he is getting really comfortable with her. It helps immensely that Autumn is relaxed and open to new ideas and has learned the “clicker game” very quickly. Here’s a (long) video of Autumn and Aesop working together today:

The video is a little bit like watching paint dry and that’s the point. If we go slowly, listen to our horses and progress only when their body language indicates comfort, the whole process of introducing new people and procedures can be relatively stress free. Once or twice in the video you will see Aesop raise his head, stiffen or just turn away toward the windows. Those are micro-expressions of stress/fear in him. When he expresses those signals, Autumn moves back to the last point in the procedure where he was comfortable. Once his muscles are soft again and his head is straight and low, we know we have the green light to move on to the next step. He even starts to offer his foot once he is sure of what we want.

It’s a new concept for animals to participate in their own care. In the past, the definition of success was “nothing happened”. But I don’t want horses who don’t move a muscle because they are terrified of the consequences. I want horses who show me through a drop of their head, offering of their foot or nice deep sigh how complicit they are in their handling. Aesop didn’t ask to be rounded up and brought into my world; it’s my responsibility to make his experience comfortable, safe and fun.

Longe line, cantering and emotional control

I had a fabulous training session today with Dragon, the kind of session that is addictive and leaves you feeling like the world has offered you the best of itself. Moments like this:

Dragon has always been very excitable on the longe line – he gets emotional when he is asked to move quickly, as many horses do, is very large, so sometimes becomes “tangled up” in his body, which, historically has created a fair amount of frustration for him. I would say both of us felt we would have rather avoided the canter on the longe if we had the chance. We have been working intensively on emotional control lately, shaping for physical balance, relaxed muscles, and even tempo. I have been ignoring extreme flight reactions or overstimulation, asking quietly for a transition downward. No marking wild airborne behaviors or loss of emotional control with yelling or yanking. It is the opposite of what a lot of traditional trainers recommend, mainly, immediately stopping the horse when they “misbehave” to “delete” the flight response so the behavior is not practiced. I did try this for awhile, but stopping a 1300lb horse is not  very safe for the animal’s neck and spine, since it usually takes quite a bit of force. The other problem with this is the main reason for the “misbehavior” was usually tension or fear, and a forceful, physical stop only served to up that tension and cause worse departs than before. So I tried ignoring the emotional behavior, shaping for calm, relaxed movement and took two weeks off of cantering while we built up a calm history on the longe. And today was our second day back at cantering, and he was able to offer his first immediate departs (cantering immediately on cue) and the most emotional control he has had to date in that gait. Lovely.