How Does a Horse Learn Respect?

fearlessThe simple answer? I don’t know.  There is no simple answer, at least not for me and Savy.  In my last blog I mention that since the surgery, Savy had been more relaxed and happy than ever before.  She was a dream to ride – steady in the contact and swinging through her nicely lifted back.  Then I asked for lateral work, and it all fell apart.  All of the tension, attitude and anger was back.  Queue mutual temper tantrums and meltdowns.  After a week of terrible rides, and a meltdown (on my part) which ended in me yelling at Savy for pooping too much (it was ridiculous, like 6 times in 10 minutes, but still no excuse), I took a step back.  I had to.  After so many of these type of relapses, I can’t handle it anymore.

I took a week off and just thought about Savy, training, and the possible physical reasons why she might be acting this way. I also realized that Savy either ignored me, or grossly over-reacted to my aids.  As an example, if I would ask her for a walk to trot transition, she would ignore my leg aids until I had to use the whip, at which point she would act completely offended, like I was abusing her.  Finally I realized Savy didn’t understand the difference between respect and fear.  After sharing my realization with my trainer, she suggest ground work.

Our first ground work lesson was simple and astounding.  It was obvious from the beginning that I didn’t understand respect either.  We spent the hour learning about personal space, and walking, backing and stopping with attention.  By our second ground work lesson, Savy had figured out what I wanted and had gone back to zoning out.  Just that fast.  She’s too smart.  So we had to turn up the difficulty, we ran and stopped.  We learned turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches.  Savy still gets opinionated, but it’s so much easier to deal with her emotions from the ground.

Savy has always been weaker and more tense on her left side (she’s right handed), but now she’s very tense on her right side.  I had her massaged and adjusted by the chiropractor. Poor girl is a mess.  She was out just about everywhere, except her left hind, ironically.  She even had a rib out.  The chiro said a lot of times the surgery itself can cause a lot of problems, since they are lifted by their legs and laid on their backs.

Savy had 48 hours off after her adjustment, and the plan is to start back with an easy ride of walk trot.  The chiro is coming back in two weeks and the goal between now and then is to strengthen and lengthen Savy’s right stifle. I plan on spending as much time out of the ring as possible, my goal is to do trot sets on the old racing track, and in a week or so start back on the ground work.


Who’s The Boss?


Notice love is not one of those emotions, even though it seems like it should be the most important, it’s not. Since I love Savy so much, I try to help her and make her work easier, but this only creates more problems.   I have many ways of showing her I love her: I let her lean on my inside leg, I release the outside rein, I release the reins completely or push my hands forward so that she doesn’t really have to be on the bit, I lean forward, I throw my hips forward, I don’t make her march at the walk, I let her run around the arena totally strung out, and I’m sure Nicole know of many other ways I try to make life easier on Savy.  In my mind  I’m telling her I love her, but all Savy is thinking is “Haha sucka! Now I don’t have to work as hard”.

I’ve been trying for months to stop myself from doing this, but subconsciously I still want to.  The truth is that I feel guilty when I make her work hard and do something she doesn’t want to do.  Savy is a willful, stubborn, 5 year old Arabian mare.  She’s sassy and opinionated.  Riding for her isn’t about love, it’s about work and dominance.  She wants to be the leader of our 2 member pack and each time I ease up on her and make things easier, she’s becoming more of the leader than I am.

The turning point in my mindset happened several weeks ago at an Alfredo Hernandez clinic when he addressed the same issue with one of the riders.  He said you love your horse 23 hours of the day, but for 1 hour, the horse has to work (I’m paraphrasing because he said it much more colorfully than that).  So I’ve decided to trust the advice of professionals and take my loving feelings completely out of our training.  I’m not talking about respect, kindness and fairness, those are at the foundation of successful training, but love in the sense that I stop letter her take advantage of me.  I will no longer be a passive rider.  And let me tell you, Savy is pissed!  Super, super pissed.

Savy is beyond angry that I’ve been making her stay bent to the inside without releasing the outside rein and stay in front of my leg.  She is outraged and she’s fighting with all of her might to remain the leader of our pack.  And so begins the toughest time in our training history.  Our lesson last night was tense and stressful for all of us; me, Savy, and Nicole.  Nicole had me sit with a strong core, not leaning forword and not letting Savy pull me forward and with my elbows glued to my side.  I had to stay strong in my position until Savy released her neck and jaw.  The entire time using my legs to push her forward into the contact.  At one point I think both Nicole and I weren’t sure if she was going to give.  But finally, finally she did and we were able to get beautiful, supple, round trot work.  She even stayed round in the extended trot with no fuss.

It can be easy to get discouraged when we go through these rough patches.  Sometimes I feel like I’m no better of a rider than when we first started training a year and half ago and that we’re making no progress.  But then I remember that we went through the same thing last year teaching Savy to stretch over her back.  Now Savy has an awesome stretchy walk, trot and canter.  Something that used to be incredibly difficult is now one of our strongest points.  So I know that once we push through this challenging phase, Savy will be solid in her beautiful round, engaged frame.

This is what our last 5 rides have looked like….


A Fresh Set of Eyes

LearningI’ve had the itch to get out and do a clinic lately, if for no other reason than to have a fresh set of eyes.  Nicole is fabulous and is totally capable of guiding Savy and I well beyond training level, but sometimes it helps to hear the same things in a different way.  When Alice Peterson of Blue Ribbon Farm in Long Island came to our farm with a client to look at a few sales horses, I jumped at the chance to have a little “mini clinic” right here at home.

Alice and I worked on connection and roundness, with an emphasis on the inside bend.  I don’t bend Savy enough to the inside and it’s because Savy leans on my inside legs and falls in and the circle gets smaller and smaller.  Alice totally called me out on it.  We worked on establishing a solid inside bend, rounding with the outside rein and then leg yielding on the circle.  She did fall in and our circles got pretty small, but Alice didn’t let me give up the bend to make a bigger circle.  Every time I gave up the bend she called me out.  Coincidentally this is the same exercise Nicole and I have been working on for the last few weeks, which just confirms Savy and I are on the correct path.

Alice had a fun exercise to help Savy become quicker off my leg in the canter transition.   Walk one stride, trot one stride, walk, trot, walk, canter.  Basically we were revving her up for the transition and it did work.  It also emphasized the need to have a strong inside bend since Savy wanted to have her nose up in the air during the transition.  She also made a point that Savy and I can and should start each ride on the bit.  I have a tendency to take it easy in the beginning of ride, but we’re at the point where I need to get right down to business.  Alice said some horses benefit from walking around on the buckle but mine does need it since she’s not tense or nervous.

schoolingThe trot work was decent but the canter was crap.  Sundays are usually Savy’s day off and I could tell she was tired.  She was slow and behind the leg, but not pissy so it wasn’t an attitude thing.  I definitely have some new tools to help with our connection though and I really enjoyed riding with Alice!

Empathic Listening

John Wayne QuoteOne more post inspired by Jillian Michael’s book Unlimited. Clearly I really like this book.  I’m not reading it super fast because I’ll read a chapter and then take a couple of week to reflect on it.  Right now I’m reading the chapter about communication.  Everyone who rides horses knows how important communication is, as communication is the foundation of all training.  Jillian talks about empathic listening. Basically when someone is talking, try to think about how they feel, and why they’re doing what they do. According to Jillian empathic listening is “the kind of listening that puts you in the other person’s head and in their frame of reference, so you truly get what they’re feeling and understand what they’re saying”.  Obviously this becomes even more difficult when you’re trying to communicate with an animal that doesn’t speak the same language, and has an entirely different world view that that of a person.

ListeningThis idea about empathic listening reminded me of an essay I read in college called Understanding Other People’s Stories by Roger C. Schank. The take away from the essay is that when people listen to someone tell a story, they only think about how it relates to a different experience about themselves.  And so when you stop talking, they will respond by telling you their story.  For example, I tell someone that I went to several different schools growing up and I had a hard time making friends because of it, and they might respond by telling me a story about how they’ve had the same best friend since preschool.  My story reminded them of their memory, and instead of discussing my story further, they shared their story instead.   Now that I’ve pointed this out listen for it in your conversations and it will drive you crazy.  Ha!

Of course I relate everything I learn to horses, and how it affects my relationship with Savy.  I try, no strain, everyday to hear Savy and to listen to what she’s telling me.  I’ll be honest, most of the time I either miss the message completely or what happens most often, I can tell she’s trying to tell me something but I don’t know what it is.  This is where having an awesome trainer comes into play.  She can help me translate Savy’s feedback and help problem solve.  Because training is really just problem solving right?  Savy used to switch leads behind in the left lead canter.  Nicole realized she wasn’t doing it to be bad, and that it was a strength issue, so she had us practice haunches in to the left.  This exercise engaged the outside hide, and therefore built the strength she needed to properly canter to the left.  I like to look at Dressage as a big puzzle, and the only way you can figure out the answer is to listen to the horse, and find a way to solve a problem that benefits the horse.

A side note about changing leads in the canter…once Savy realized she couldn’t trot to get out of the left lead canter she started doing changes by herself.  She also knows which lead is correct based on the direction we’re going. So I have a sneaking suspension she figured out changes on her own.  Sometimes I get the feeling that if I went down the diagonal and gave the aids for the trot to canter transition she would switch.  But I’m getting ahead of myself because we have to master countercanter first 🙂



Conquering Fear

fearWhile reading Jillian Michael’s book Unlimited I came across an anecdote that reminded me very much of my experience with conquering fear in the saddle.

“One day I was sparring with my martial arts instructor on what we called “fight night”. I was basically a beginner, maybe a blue belt, and I figured he was not really going to hit me hard.  It was just practice training.  After all, I was a novice and a kid going through a tough time – right? Wrong.

Suddenly I found myself in a corner getting the crap kicked out of me.  Literally one sidekick after another was being delivered right into my stomach.  With the wind knocked out of me, I immediately curled into a ball, took cover, and started crying.  To my amazement, he did not stop kicking me. Instead he said, “Life is not going to stop knocking the wind out of you. You can pull it together and fight your way out of that corner, or I can break your ribs”.  And then he delivered another swift blow to my solar plexus.  I promise you this is no exaggeration.

But in that moment I realized that I couldn’t allow fear to immobilize me.  I had to use it as motivation to fight back – and I did.  That night I fought my way out of the corner, and I have been doing it ever since.”

Okay so it doesn’t really have anything to do with horses, but the moral of the story is relatable.  I bought Savy while I was recovering from wisdom tooth surgery with complications.  I felt weak and sick for a long time, and I hadn’t been in the saddle consistently for years.  Savy had only been backed a few times when I bought her so she was green as spring grass.  Due to my timid-ness, she realized pretty quickly that she could easily intimidate me.  Savy decided she didn’t want to be ridden past the gate.  She wanted to go out the gate to her stall.  Every time we rounded a corner away from the gate, even if it was at the other end of the arena, she would bulk and act like she was going to buck.  It terrified me.  I’m not sure how many lessons Megan and I went through with her trying to get us to round that corner.  Savy would bulk, pin her ears back and I’d curl into fetal position.  In the saddle.

Courage quoteMegan kept telling me to sit back but it was hard!  Sitting up straight while Savy misbehaved made me feel so exposed.  But I was lucky that I had someone there to push me through my fear, and to help me realize that ridding through the situation instead of hiding from it was the only way we’d get better.  If it wasn’t for Megan screaming sit up, sit up, I don’t know that I would have ever been able to ride my horse.  And it’s a really good thing Megan taught me how to ride through Savy’s sassy episodes since they continued in one form or another for a year.  When she bucks now I barely register it.

The only way to face a scary situation, whether in life or in the saddle, is with your shoulders back and head up.

The First (unofficial) Weekend of Spring

LuxFriday afternoon found me bouncing in my desk chair, itching to get outside to enjoy the warm weather.  Frankly, I think the first warm day after winter, and especially after winters like these, should be holidays.   The snow had melted and it was nice enough to let Savy hand-graze.  I could not wait to give Savy her first taste of grass in months.  After munching some seriously dry dead grass, I decided to ride bareback with just a halter.  It went surprisingly well.  I only walked because she’d already had a training ride with Nicole that day, but she got “on the bit” in her halter and we did haunches in and shoulder in with no problems.

Then I had a bright idea.  Lets run around together in the outdoor (on foot – not bareback).  I was feeling playful and I pictured us frolicking and playing our own horse/human version of tag.  Savy did not think this was fun.  I’m pretty sure she thought I’d lost my mind and was chasing her around the arena for no reason.  That girl can run!  And she did some beautiful flying changes but once I realized we weren’t playing anymore I tried to calm her down.  She came out of the arena prancing, with her head and tail straight up in the air and snorting so much I could see the red in her nose.  And then I remembered she’s a 4 turning 5 year old Arabian mare.  It’s safe to say we won’t be playing that game again.

Saturday was perfect.  Perfect.  We rode in the outdoor with our friends Liz (human) and Maxi (horse), and then took a little hack around the farm.  Savy has grown up so much over the winter!  She didn’t act nervous or spooky outside at all…not even when we rode past the place where the cats tried to kill her last year.  Liz and I are going to try and do Trail Ride Saturdays when the weather is nice 🙂

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I work Sunday mornings at the farm.  I feed, turn out, clean stalls, feed again, bring some in and take others out.  It’s a lot of work but I love it.  There’s nothing more satisfying than leaving the barn knowing all the stalls are clean, the horses have fresh water, and that they have full belly’s.

It’s weekends like this that make all the work and frozen toes of winter worth it.

horses make life better

William Solyntjes Dressage Clinic

On the Bit FunnyI audited a William Solyntjes clinic back in January at Majestic Farm and am just now getting around to posting my notes.  Overall the day was awesome.   I saw some fantastic riders and horses and some fantastic aspiring riders and horses.  I was happy to see many different breeds of horses and riders at all different levels.  Going in I was slightly worried all the riders would be Prix St. George or higher and while I love watching them ride, I don’t learn as much since I’m light years away from those levels in my own training.  Even though each horse & rider pair was unique from the next one, there were the same overriding themes throughout the day.  The focus was on stretching into the contact and keeping the correct inside bend. Even the upper level horses took time to work on these basics.   William kept saying flex them to the inside then send them down with the outside rein.  Inside flexion, outside down. Inside flexion, outside down.  Inside flexion, outside down.  Even though Nicole has told me this over and over, hearing it from someone else and for 6 hours finally drilled it into my head.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked Nicole how I half halt on the outside rein without loosing the inside bend.  It’s all about timing.  Wiggle the inside rein for flexion at the poll, THEN squeeze the outside rein to get them on the bit.  Simple right?  Ha!

Here are my favorite quotes:

  • Squeeze him like a tube of tooth paste.
  • Neck down, shoulders up.
  • Don’t let the problem find you.  Go after it and find it yourself.
  • Chewing is the window to their soul.
  • Take a lot, give a lot.  Take 100%, give 100%.
  • Speed kills.

I hope I can work with William Solyntjes one day.  I’d love to hear what he has to say about the Savster.

In other news it’s finally above freezing!  A balmy 48 degrees.  I am so excited to get to the barn and ride in comfort that I can barely stand it.