Of Tai Chi and Half Halts

Mark has been wanting to take tai chi classes.  While I have some experience with it, and use it extensively in my own riding and teaching, I have not wanted to add to a life already near to bursting with activity.  As I lay on the ground waiting for the ambulance, I committed to finding a class for us during my recovery.  As it turned out, a wonderful sensei I have known for years was teaching a weekly class not far from us.  Three days after the accident, we began.

Last night during class, Sensei paused the lesson for an urgent distinction.  All the world is some combination of yang or yin, expansion and contraction, sending forth and drawing back.  Before yang/ sending forth, or bodies naturally draw back slightly to prepare.  Before yin, our bodies prepare by slightly moving away from the new movement, by expressing yang.  This seeming contradiction is natural and necessary.

Go ahead, pause your reading and try this now!

Again we moved through the tai chi form, only this time we intentionally prepared for each movement by moving oh-so-slightly towards its opposite.  The movements expressed a new and beautiful flow and groundedness.   The “human half-halts”  created seamless transitions and expressive movements.

Play with this the next time you ride!  Before asking for yin (collection, downward transitions, quiessense), generate slightly more yang (impulsion, extension, exhuberance) and  vice versa.  Come back and share your discoveries with us!

An Unexpected Season

I chuckled sadly when I noticed that the last post in the blog was Mark’s exhortation of wearing helmets every time, every ride.  The post was his response to Courtney King-Dye’s accident.   She was not wearing a helmet.  The results may have been very different had she been.  We’ve been praying for her and are so grateful as she continues to recover.  But for us, helmets remain; every time, every ride.

I only chuckled at the irony.  Since then, I was also involved in a bad accident. Naturally I was wearing my helmet.  I know by the way I landed my results would have been very different had I NOT been.  As it is, I have small fractures in 3 vertebrae that are, thankfully, well on their way to healing completely.   No riding for the next month or so, but teaching and writing are doctor-permitted and self-prescribed 🙂

Spring traditionally sees the young horses’ teeth floated and formal education begun, and the older horses’ return to schooling and showing.  The accident occurred literally the day this season began. For me, forbidden from the saddle, this will be an adventure, a season unlike any other I have experienced.

Let the journey continue!

Easy Acupressure for Equestrians

We are all focused on our horses’ well-being.  Tack fit, nutritional needs, fitness, massage, training… no topic is too minute for the caring horseman to address.

All too often we fail to turn this discerning focus onto ourselves.  Sally Swift, founder of Centered Riding (TM) pointed out that when we are working to evoke change in another, whether it is our student, our horse (or even our spouse!), that change comes about most effortlessly when 80% of our focus remains on evoking that same change within ourselves.

I just stumbled across this great acupressure resource.  As stretching and bodywork for the horses are vital pieces of my daily training routine, I’m excited to find simple, parallel exercises I can do for myself.

Explore and enjoy!

Horse Power!

We’ve returned to the days of original horsepower to run the farm through “snowmageddon.”  The snow is too much for the tractors so we’ve been riding the Clydesdales, Caber and Metallica, to cut trails, ride fence, and get to the more remote areas of the farm.  They’ve been having a blast– and so have we!

Looks like we’re not the only ones.  A group of donkeys and llamas were stranded at a zoo… but I’ll let you read the whole story!


Happy New Year!

Freezing rain and ice-slick roads confine us to the farm tonight… and there is no place we’d rather be! Mark and I play with the horses well after dark. I trim Grace’s hooves and start teaching her a new trick, and we all marvel at how well Dolly’s hoof is healing.

I flash between enjoying the present, and jumping from past to future. Our culture trains us to make these leaps back and forth through time at New Years. I join the bazillion other pensive people pondering goals achieved– or not–in 2009. I measure the value of addressing last years shortcomings in 2010 or simply letting them rest as outgrown or simply irrelevent.

2010 unfurls before us! More than a day or a week in my planner pages… here is an entire year to dance with! I recall the quote but not the author: “you can have ANYthing you want, but not EVERYthing you want.”

So the question rises before you, before me, as we balance on this cusp between the years (between the DECADES I realize with a start!)

What are the ANYthings that will totally transform your world, your horses and your horsemanship in 2010?

Metallica – Training Heavy Horse

I can tell already I’m going to have fun with her name.

Yesterday was a day of straightforward run of the mill successfully uneventful horse training! The goal was simple: take a horse that had fairly limited experience with me, build on the trust relationship we’ve been establishing, and introduce medieval weapons… a rattan sword and a 12 foot lance… both for the record are very blunt 1-inch minimum rounded edges… to the equation and get her to calmly accept their presence. Uneventful was the goal! And uneventful is what I got!

Here’s how…

Ally has an awesome foundation in natural horsemanship. Rock solid foundation. I took the extra time yesterday to take advantage of that fact and stack the deck in my favor from the get-go.

Beginning with leading out of the pasture with calm presence of authority, I took the time to very pleasantly do a thourough job playing friendly with various grooming supplies and tools, ensuring a happy, well scratched and contented horse entered the round pen.

I spent time starting at square zero with the lead rope over all quarters of the body. I ran the rope around legs, etc etc; and did the same with a carrot stick. All quarters, all angles, rubbing with the stick, and tracing with the rope. At convenient points she was clicked and rewarded for calmness.

After Id exhausted the possibilities of friendly, I ran a couple cues to make sure she responded to pressure and cues, trotted her once around each way to break up the boredom, and set about the real task: weapons training.

I started off just holding the sword in front of her until she sniffed at it. After we had that calmy accepted and rewarded, we just rubbed along all parts of the body and neck gently and friendly, just like the carrot stick. After that, waving the sword back and forth, up and down, slowly by her face. Click! Reward! We’re done here!

The lance was a bit more scary and difficult… but only like walking into a light breeze. It -is- 12 feet long, and may in fact be the first large stick shes seen not firmly in the ground with leaves. I held it vertically for control and weight, about 6 inches away from her.  She moved away at first, but I just followed with the lance until she stopped and rewarded the calm. Soon thereafter, I was rubbing the 12 foot lance everywhere on all quarters and down both sides. Rewards galore!

We finished up with a brief, in-hand introduction to the quintain. No reaction at all, even when the wind pushed the shield against her nose. Our last little bit was an in-hand walk through the reeds and on the correct pathing for the heads games.

Praises galore!!!

That was a fine time to leave well enough alone and so we wrapped up the day with radical success… a radical success built by careful planning, encouragement, and solid foundational work setting the correct tone for trust, communications, and learning.

9 days left until showtime. And I hope to continue applying the principles of horsemanship in a careful and accurate manner to achieve not only the short term goal.. Siege of Glengary… but also the long term goal of educating the horse to implicitly trust the human!

Until next time!


Clicker training saves the night!

There are times when training is a calm sunny day in a round pen with a brave, intelligent horse. There are also the times when conditions are less than optimum, yet even a frightened horse can achieve a major breakthrough.

This is one such success.

A week or two ago we had a cold, bitter storm blow in from the Arctic. Caught by surprise by the cold pellets stinging our faces, and the 20 degree, gale force winds howling around us, we set out in the dark to blanket the few remaining horses who still needed the added protection from the fury of elements. With wind chills in the low zeros, blankets were not a request, they were a requirement. Our yearling Friesian-cross did not agree.

Spotteigh, usually calm, compliant, and friendly, had only worn a blanket once in his life… on a calm day at that. This night of all nights, the blanket seemed to have a life of it’s own as it blew around in Kirsten’s arms. The blanket for pasturemate D’Art was laying on the ground and moving of its own accord.

You could see it in Spotteigh’s eyes: “It’s gonna EAT ME!!!” That’s one of those moments where either all your training clicks together or you or someone else gets trampled. Short lead in hand, we danced in circles until he calmed down enough to try again. And try we did…

We have this little secret we’ll share with you! From the moment one of our horses sets hoof on the farm, we instill in them clicker-training. A bridge signal (in this case a ‘click’ sound) marks a behavior as desired… an implicit yes that says “You’re doing things right!” A click is always rewarded with a healthy tasty little snack treat. Think the trained Orcas at Sea World.

Face and hands going numb in the cold, we began the process of introducing Spotteigh to the blanket… the moving, scary looking mass that would give him warmth if he could trust it. Sniff…click… reward. Touch… click…reward. Touch on side… click…reward.

Each step was building on the success of the previous step until the surcingles were buckled and the front straps closed… and we were back in the truck thawing out.

All with the power of a click and a pocketful of hay stretcher!

Horsemanship Practice… At the Mall!

Kathy made my day today!  During a break in her lesson she told me she’s taken up walking at the mall.  Today she walked two miles.  More importantly, she confided, “I kept thinking about what we’ve been practicing in our riding lessons.  I keep reminding myself to breathe, and put on my cloak!”

For people who are visual learners, I use a lot of imagery in my explanations.  “Wearing the cloak” is one of my favorite and most effective visualizations to bring riders’ shoulders back into a supple but strong posture (exactly the opposite of how most of us march through our days!)

I ask the rider to picture the cloak clearly.  What color is it? What kind of fabric is made out of? does it reach to your saddle or stream along your horse’s back and hindquarters? Now, as you ride forward, feel how it flows and billows behind you in the wind.  The more senses you can involve in your visualization, the more effective the results. Go ahead! Try it Now!

Kathy realized that practicing good horsemanship doesn’t always require a horse.  Good horsemanship requires acute body awareness and control. You can hone your awareness and improve that control while walking, driving, standing in line… where ever!

The habits that you carry on the ground carry over into the saddle.  The silver lining in that cloud is that breakthroughs from the ground bring breakthroughs from the saddle.

As you walk the malls in search of the perfect gifts this season, I encourage you to seek your own breakthroughs!

Comment below and share your experiences–we love to hear from you!

Losgelassenheit and Natural Horsemanship

Breakthrough day for June!  This formerly stiff-as-a-board but quick-as-a-whip little mare learned to release to the pressure of the bit.  We’re not talking turn or tuck her head.  We are talking release negative tension throughout her entire body. This elementary lesson is June’s first step towards losgelassenheit.

…Before you say “gesundheit” let’s pull our dictionary!

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) translates the German term “losgelassenheit” as: “Looselettingness” or “letlooseness,” shortened to “Looseness….”

The USDF further elaborates:  “The supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”

For purposes of the Training Pyramid, the USDF uses the translation “Relaxation” … and the FEI uses the translation “Suppleness.”

Why pull out complicated foreign terms when we’re tallking about training a pleasure horse who will most likely never see be seen halting at X in a dressage arena?

Regardless of the owner’s goals a horse is a horse is a horse. “Dressage,” literally, is the French word for “training.” Classical dressage is the oldest, most pervasive, and most effective system of developing a horse into an athlete for war, for sport, for exhibition and for enjoyment.

Any effective training system, including what we’ve come to know as natural horsemanship, has its parallels in classical dressage. Every athletic effort between horse and human requires “the supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state of the horse’s musculature that permits an unrestricted flow of energy from back to front and front to back, which allows the aids/influences to freely go through to all parts of the horse (e.g., the rein aids go through and reach and influence the hind legs.”  A fixed frame or headset results in athletic–and emotional–restrictions.

Horses can achieve their athletic best only when their physical framework is supple enough to transmit energy efficiently to the rider’s chosen task, regardless of what style of saddle they wear.  Unfortunately, this can be taken to the extreme. EVERY discipline has their offenders who persist even through threatened action at a regulatory level.

Detractors of natural horsemanship often point accusingly–and sadly, accurately– to well-intentioned novices who overuse flexions and one-rein stops to the point of abuse.  The result are horses whose necks are disconnected from their bodies. Their backs can can be rigid, their hindquarters trailing, but their heads and necks flop back and forth like some macabre bobble-head toys.  Such horses are difficult to ride and fall far short of their athletic potential.  They may even end up injured, or worse.

June “knew her flexions” when she first came. She was quick to snap that neck around.  But she bent through muscular effort, not release.  She stiffened to the bit and locked her back, even as she curved her neck. The intended antidote was instead the pathology.

For June, it all changed in that lightbulb moment.  The bit used to mean tense yourself and twist.  Now it means release your body and mind to what comes next.

NOW we can begin an athetic adventure!