Monday, September 5, 2011

Herding to Harmony

Somebody must be herding them...for the camera

Sorry about the title. Sounds like another natural  horsemanship scam has been  born, but if you just read on I'll promise that I will NOT copyright the phrase and I will NOT try to sell you a DVD about it. I will, however, suggest that you subscribe to this blog and that you "like" the Dodon Farm Facebook Page, where we post lots of farm news.

When I was a kid we always had five or six family horses in a big pasture. My Dad was a lawyer in D.C. and we went to school in town, so our time on the farm with the horses was precious. Dad loved to see the horses run. " Let's chase the horses," he would say.What a thrill for me. I could waive my arms, run a few steps, and be rewarded with ten or twenty seconds of thundering hooves, bucks and squeals. We were herding, and it really was fun.

Fast forward to the age of sophisticated horsemanship. I will describe three recent situations in which herding of a more refined nature has helped in three stages of training. .

First let me upgrade the concept of herding to what I like to call establishing boundaries. For me all of what we do on a horse's back can be understood as creating boundaries and moving them closer in or further away. Horses instinctively understand our aids when they are consistent and firm because they are herd animals.

True Class as a foal
True Class (Kate) is a gorgeous and talented three year old who is taking longer to start under saddle than most. She seems to imagine that something is attacking her when she moves with the saddle on and suddenly feels the need to get away from it. First she scoots forward, but sometimes she drops her head and throws a series of very impressive bucks. She started with a rider in the beginning on a loose rein quite relaxed, but with no boundaries ever in place she was too much to handle when she came undone. We decided that she needed to accept more boundaries before she would be safe enough to ride. We decided that after she dumped our assistant trainer, Michelle Warro, during one of these episodes. That's what we mean by "Listen to the Horse."

I taught her to long line, and that helped. It got her used to reins rubbing her sides and to me behind her. It also got her somewhat accepting the bit for turns and halts. The bucking problem, however, was still there. There are lots of ways to attach a longe line, and one that I don't usually like is to run it through the inside bit ring, over the poll, and snap it on the outside bit ring. Michelle did just that to Kate after a bucking fit when I wasn't there to supervise. Damn, I thought. That's brilliant. And it worked. Now we longe her that way before riding, and when she dares to drop her head to buck I can pull on the line hard. That pulls the bit directly upward and brings her head back up. It creates the boundary that says you are not allowed to drop your head. It's simple, but why had I never thought of using the longe line this way on the many youngsters who buck while longeing under saddle? Michelle hasn't had the opportunity to ride her buck lately, but we suspect she will at some point. The hope is that Kate will remember when Michelle pulls the reins upward that we've established a boundary. Head between the knees is not a comfy place to be. It's not about punishing her for bucking, which I find does not work. In fact, I don't think punishing horses works at all, because it's not in the moment. This was about creating a consistent boundary with an artificial aid. That does work.

Amy Parsons trailered in from Warrenton for four lessons over two days on her retired steeplechase horse with whom she has done some low level eventing. I'd never met them, but I wish they lived closer because horse and rider were a delight to work with. Their problem on the flat was common. A good rider, a talented and cooperative horse, and an inconsistent connection in the bridle. The solution was straightforward. Stabilize the hands.

When I got on, the horse went well. When Amy got on and I made her grab her stirrup leather with her left hand where it was crossed over the pommel (grabbing anything can work), the horse went well. Once the connection was established she was able to remove the hand from it's prop and maintain the feel. It's so simple. Amy had been told, as we all have, that the horse should be soft on the inside rein. Rather than letting the horse accept the rein and soften to it, she softened the rein herself, over and over again. There was no boundary established for the horse, just a lot of movement from the rider's hand that sent no clear message.

Amy's problem with her horse over fences was that he's sticky. He sometimes stops, but more often sucks back to the point that he's almost jumping from a standstill. The stickiness would also show up on the flat. He didn't really move forward from the rider's leg when asked. We call it a failure to stay "in front of the leg."

The solution there was also simple, if thought of in terms of boundaries. He must sense that there is something behind him that is quick to respond when he sucks back. Kicking with dull boots repeatedly can be a little like pulling the rein and letting go. The horse will learn to hold his breath and brace his body for the kick, rather than to relax his back and swing forward in long strides. We added spurs to make the leg pressure more acute, and therefore more likely to be felt with less movement by the rider, and we added a crop so that a signal could be delivered from behind that is quick, clear, and very natural to send the horse forward. It was then Amy's job to establish in her mind a minimum pace for jumping, and a commitment to act consistently when her horse backed off from that pace. Simple, obvious, and straightforward. The key is that it is a boundary that the rider is capable of establishing and that the horse is capable of working within. Our steeplechase retiree is certainly capable of jumping at more than 300 meters per minute. I hope to see Amy again soon and find that she has mastered what we practiced and has a new set of issues to confront, or more likely the same issues, but at a new level.

Michelle and Billy during brief experiment in double bridle
Now we progress to a higher level of training. Michelle, the same one who gets to ride the broncs, has an Irish Draught /Arabian cross gelding who she calls Billy competing at Preliminary. He is as opinionated as a pony, trots like a cart horse, and  until a year ago usually cantered in four beats rather than three. He's a fantastic jumper and a cross country machine, despite a recent temporary fear of trakehners (logs with ditches under them).

Michelle dreams of making Billy a better mover and competitive in the dressage. Michelle is very ambitious, and has the talent and drive to make her dreams come true. Off and on over the last couple of years I have asked Michelle to use less leg on Billy, especially in his trot work. She tries so hard to create suspension. Billy does need leg to keep him from dropping his back and becoming disengaged behind, but leg for that is a boundary. He is not allowed to collapse and become flat in his topline. Tickling him in the belly with the spur is usually enough to remind him. Thumping calves in the rhythm of his trot, however, is more like noise.

Lately I have come to the conclusion that Billy really can become competitive in the dressage. Don't get me wrong. He usually scores under 35, but we need him to be under 30. The answer, I believe, is simply making him straighter. Billy wiggles. Parts of his body are way too loose, and keeping his shoulders lined up with his poll and his tail, whether on a straight line or on the arc of a circle, is no easy task. If you do take away the lateral wiggle, his withers start to lift and he starts to feel like he's really doing dressage. He's not lazy. He likes to work. He just hasn't learned to dance.

I won't try to explain here how all the parts of the rider's body must respond to each lateral drift in each gait. There are books about that, but you won't get it until you've practiced for a few thousand hours. Fortunately, Michelle gets it and is pushing herself to a level of accuracy in her dressage riding that establishes closer boundaries in a way that Billy is starting to accept. Hips and shoulders are over the center of the horse, legs and hands perfectly placed in any given moment, and no acceptance of  crookedness in horse or rider. They scored 32.2 for fourth place this weekend at Seneca, and have six weeks to prepare for the first FEI competition of their career at the Kentucky Horse Park. The boundaries will have moved closer by then, Billy's front end will magically lift, and the judges will smile.

It's always dangerous to adhere too closely to any framework of thinking. It would be easy to forget that establishing boundaries is an art, that boundaries can create resistance, that we must listen to the boundaries that the horse puts in our way, and that we don't always know which boundaries will create the movement that we seek. On the other hand, if we remember that we are simply herding our horses through physical boundaries we take responsibility for what they do in every moment. That should be enough to occupy our minds completely while we ride. If all of us could do that our horses would reward us.