always learning

I’ve had a hard time scheduling rides, lessons, and writing since I got back from Australia as I’m living a new work/volunteer/life schedule AND moving houses on top of that.  In short, instead of teaching I’m now going to San Francisco to play at the zoo 2+ days a week (though I luckily have friends to stay with in the area between consecutive days), still managing the ranch office (w/ taxes upcoming and irrigation in full swing), and then trying to finish up my thesis and get my work done around the barn and my horse ridden and my boyfriend visited and suddenly I’m living the Megan and L life out of my car.

so dreamy

Murray loves it though.  He comes in during the day and eats a little, naps a little, eats a little, naps some more, pushes the dirt around in his paddock to make himself a pillow and re-adjusts for his nap… it’s the life.  He’s getting ridden just enough to get himself some attention, and not so much that it feels like work.

I did manage to get in a dressage lesson on Tuesday morning, both to get my trainer’s assessment on yet another dressage saddle that I’ve been riding in, and to keep working on that elusive outside rein contact.  I borrowed a barn kids’ JRD one weekend day and Murray felt amazing.  I have always maintained that he’s not a super fussy guy about saddle fit, but he was so forward and into the contact that day that I thought it was worth another test.  I also didn’t hate how it made me feel, so I wanted some trainer evaluation.  (The verdict on the saddle: it was a bit wide, but Murray definitely did seem to move better in it.  I’ll give it another go, but obviously this exactly saddle is not the ticket, though something like it may work well.)

IMG_1963 Change averse right here

The lesson itself focused on encouraging Murray to accept that outside rein contact and get him to bend around my inside leg instead of my inside rein.  It’s a hard concept for him because he has relied so heavily upon that inside rein for balance and connection for so long.  (This was a crutch, yes, but also a valuable training tool.  I think I will write more about it later, as I’ve had some interesting discussions with my friends about this in the last few days.)  Murray is averse to change and gets claustrophobic easily, and responds to that by shortening his stride and tensing his neck and back, i.e. the anti-dressage.  I can get mean and kick him into the outside rein, sure, but the result of that is that he slowly pulls me out of the tack and then goes from a true bend to a counter bend and suddenly — hooray! — he’s on his beloved inside rein again.

IMG_1985Which rein do you think has more contact?!  Can hardly tell if there’s contact on either here.

We worked on the beloved 20 meter circle.  After warming up with some stretchy work as soon as I picked up the outside rein and asked for a bit of connection to it Murray’s gait got stiffer, his back stopped swinging, and he got tenser overall.  To ease him into it, trainer had me push Murray into the outside rein for a little bit and then relax the outside rein so he could resume stretching.  I worked hard on not pulling Murray into the connection with the inside rein and instead pushing him into the outside rein with my inside leg, and also keeping him well aligned on the circle and not letting his haunches drift around.  The benefits of this strategy were multi-fold:  Murray slowly got more comfortable with the outside rein connection and became much steadier for longer periods of time, I gained a better understanding of how to lighten the contact without giving away the reins, and we reinforced the request for the stretchy trot.

megandressage2Very interestingly, Murray struggled less with this tracking right (with my weak hand on the outside, and his weak hind on the inside), but I suspect it was because we went that way second.  As he got more comfortable, I could feel his back swinging more and his gait opening up even with the outside rein contact, which is huge progress for him.  Even better, he was really moving his outside foreleg around the circle, instead of pivoting his haunches around his front leg a little with each step, which is the influence of that outside rein.

We worked on the same thing in the canter, with a slightly different strategy.  Tracking left Murray wanted to counter-flex again, but just pushing him into that rein didn’t really work, so I gently massaged the inside in conjunction with my inside leg to help him keep the inside bend and flexion.  To the right he actually wanted to drift to the inside circle while maintaining his right bend, so I worked extra hard on pushing him to the outside.  Good progress overall.

The last thing we worked on were lengthenings, which are probably the weakest part of our repertoire of first-level movements.  Murray has never had a firm grasp on the concept, and usually offers to trot spastically or canter or just do nothing.  Now that I had this really solid outside rein connection though I could balance him in a circle on the short side, half halt through the corner, and then let him open his frame up a little bit as we came out of the corner and then ask for the lengthening.  This setup got fantastic lengthenings going left and okay ones to the right — once again that weak right hind not wanting to push.  The outside rein connection was crucial here: in the past even with a steady contact to both reins an attempt to lengthen his frame was typically an invitation to hollow, and then the “big trot” ask just resulted in “jazz toezz!!”  Now I could lengthen his frame with just a softening of the outside rein and he did so in a balanced way, and then the big trot ask was just MOAR TROT.  It was cool.

IMG_8864Can reach with legs if properly motivated…

This lesson was particularly good because it solidifed a lot of the concepts that have been pretty half-baked for me and Murray.  We both got a better understanding of the connection to the outside rein and a better way to manage that connection (when I’m sucking or when Murray is feeling confined).  It was one of those lessons heavy on the learning, my favourite type of lesson!

the Murray guide to training your baby horse

Writing up all of Murray’s ridiculous behaviors and how they have changed over time yesterday got me thinking about how I’ve worked on his behavior.  Other than Murray I don’t have a ton of experience working with young horses for more than a few weeks at a time.  So Murray has, very much, been the greatest educator in my life.  In many ways, he is typical of a young horse: spooky, unfocused, still learning.  In other ways, he is challenging beyond the standard young horse challenge: he persists in weird behaviors beyond the lessons that young horses typically need, and even in my barn manager’s words he is a horse where you must very carefully approach the behaviors that you can punish and those you must let go – for now.

Change the context
At the height of his tacking-up problems, Murray was most upset by tacking up inside the barn.  So on the worst of days I would simply* take Murray and my tack out to the arena and tack up there.  Whatever it is about being inside the barn, whether it is claustrophobia, a learned negative association, or something else, it sometimes makes Murray more anxious and jumpy than being outside.  So why not just take the advantage and go outside to get what I want?  We could always tackle tacking up inside the barn another day.  This works for us away from home too** – trailer too spooky?  Find somewhere else to tack up.  Water complex inspires too much sass for warming up?  Go to the nearest patch of flat ground.

febdressage07* Ha, I say simply, but usually this was after far too much fighting and coaxing.

** Interestingly, Murray was the most perfectly behaved at dressage camp, a totally different context!


Change the association
After a few months of tacking up Murray it was pretty clear to me that simple repetition was not going to inspire him to stand perfectly still and appreciate the tacking up process.  Thanks to his history Murray had a negative association with tack, and that was the end of it.  So I had to change that association.  You can watch the late Sophia Yin do the same thing with a dog here.  (It’s a really great video, if you’re interested in training at all you should definitely watch.)

The idea is that you dissociate the negative affect from the stimulus by adding something that the trainee finds positive.  In Murray’s case, this could only be food rewards, as petting and verbal praise are not very rewarding to him.  I got a lot of shit for trying to make this work, as it created a lot of negative behaviors at the outset (pawing, mugging for treats while simultaneously dancing away from the girth), but I do think that this, more than anything else, took Murray’s opinion of tacking up from “the worst thing ever” to “better than a sharp stick in the eye”.

ASIAN HORSE MOM 6Least Rewarding Stimulus (LRS)
Lots of riders know a lot about the least rewarding stimulus, though I’m not sure they ever think of it as such.  When you’re riding along trying to do, say, a 20 meter circle, and your horse decides she just absolutely CAN NOT and starts flailing for no reason in the middle and you just keep riding through as if that 20 meter circle is still happening – that’s the LRS.  The LRS usually involves ignoring an action or behavior and behaving as if it never happened, which can take the form of actually ignoring someone or simply continuing on with what you are doing.

One example of using the LRS on Murray was with his behavior of pawing while I was grooming.  Murray used to lift up the foot on the near side of his body during grooming (but also while anticipating his bucket and while eating his bucket), and then paw in the air back and forth.  Not only was this incredibly annoying, I quite literally feared for my kneecap.  The standard responses (smack him or curry on through as if it didn’t happen) didn’t work, so when he would do this I started walking a few steps away and turning away until Murray’s foot returned to the ground.  Very shortly the pawing decreased in frequency drastically.  For whatever reason my attention was desirable enough to get Murray to quite pawing the air, so yay.

Let them eat grass
I know lots of people don’t let their horses graze while tacked up, and I appreciate that for many reasons.  But for a large part of Murray’s life if he didn’t have the distraction of food he would focus on all the other horrors of the world – other horses schooling cross country fences, a dust devil off in the distance, and YE GODS GIGANTIC HUGE CROSS COUNTRY FENCES STATIONED JUST OVER THERE.  Eating grass is really the lesser of two evils.

wp-1449989989647.jpgPut their mind to work
This one is a horse-training basic, but I’m putting it on the list because I truly did not believe that it would work when I was first told to do it, and it did (and I find my own suggestion met with similar incredulity when I suggest it!).  There are times when Murray is too worked up to stand quietly, eat grass, or even stand not so quietly.  In the past he’s turned himself into a sweating mess and started side passing or backing in the direction he perceives as the least offensive – sometimes this is right into parked vehicles (and as funny as it would be to see him sit down on a sedan, I don’t actually want to have to be responsible for that damage).  In these situations I put Murray onto a small figure-8, asking him to dramatically flex his neck to each side through the change of direction.  With this strategy I could slowly get him closer and closer to the start gate or start box, and he hardly even noticed all the other activity because I had him so focused on me*.  I started this, with my trainer’s guidance, at Murray’s first show, and I think that it’s become something of a calming routine, as I need fewer and fewer circles to get him back to me, and I don’t even have to do it at familiar venues these days!

* I wish this would work on him during my regular rides, dammit!

When in doubt, walk it outIMG_20151108_120344~2
Sometimes you just need to go for a walk.  A quiet walk, away from all the other horses and the areas of unpleasantness from earlier.  Change the context, take a deep breath, have a cry if you need to, but after a bit of a walk both I and Murray typically feel better and are ready to re-approach whatever went wrong.

This is the key.  The slow, quiet, unrelenting persistence that doesn’t start fights but always wins them.  (Clipping picture included because there are some times, some times, when you just have to clip through the bullshit and win a fight that you refused to be a part of.)

I think the take-away message from Murray has been to know what he was mentally capable of at any time, and only tackling those pieces of his behavior that I could modify within that framework.  Other horses can have more demanded of them at a younger age than Murray could, but there are plenty of horses out there in the blogosphere and the world at large who need a little bit of careful treatment.

in the green

A couple of weeks ago Karen posted about the behaviors Eli has adapted and developed while under her care. So while I’ve been sulking about the fact that I don’t have a job, don’t have a house, and don’t own anything of value except Murray, I started doing the same and comforted myself quite a bit.  Murray has made a ton of progress in our time together, and it is nothing to sneeze about.

wp-1464679577850.jpgCamelot Horse Trials -- but mostly tribulations!
The resemblance really is striking…

So I made my own chart.  Murray’s previous behaviors are listed on the left, and comments on the right.  I color-coded the comments as red (no change/still bad), yellow (some progress), and green (legit progress!) and gave a little description about them.  I also realised that Murray is waaaay weirder on the ground than he is under saddle.  Like… a lot.

ground behaviors

under saddle

There’s a lot of green in these charts.  That is a lot to be proud of, even if I don’t own a house.

theory vs application

We all know how it goes*: you’re at a clinic and the clinician has you and your horse going better than ever before.  Their timing is impeccable, their advice is spot on, and it’s exactly what you need to make your horse move like they have never moved before.  Even when you make mistakes, which you do because you’re only human, it’s just fine!  Because you can correct them with the helpful wisdom of your spirit guide, and you are soon trucking along with the perfect shoulder-in angle, in a fantastic renvers, doing some baby half-passes across the arena like a badass.  And then you try to replicate this ride outside of your clinic lesson and instead of angels singing you’re hearing sad trombones…

clinic magic not for you

*At least sometimes.

Usually when I try to apply all the magic that I learned at a clinic I end up wondering if I’m remembering all the things I’m supposed to be remembering and cursing the fact that it just doesn’t quite feel right.  I’m simply not good enough to replicate everything I was taught at the clinic all at the same time, so I have to break it down piecemeal and then put it back together.

So let’s take my lesson with Megan as an example, because it’s the clinic I most recently rode in.  Right now I’m simultaneously trying to teach Murray to connect to the outside rein, not lean on the inside rein,  bend around my leg instead of his own shoulder, track his hind feet up under his body, and not move laterally on a circle at all times.

IMG_8822-2It’s a lot of things.  And when Megan is telling them all to you in this magical stream-of-consciousness fashion and you’re just doing it all and you feel these moments of rightness, it’s great.  And then I got on my horse for my first dressage ride after that clinic and Murray was falling all over himself, dragging himself towards the inside of the circle on increasingly tinier and tinier circles, couldn’t connect to the outside rein to save his life and mostly spent his time just trying to counterflex around that outside rein, and I was seriously booting him off of my inside leg (especially when it was my right leg) with these huge full-leg-slap-kicks that I’m sure Murray really appreciated.

(I personally needed to go cold turkey on the inside rein, and that ride helped me be a lot more accountable for my inside rein use and using it consciously.  But it wasn’t really a fair or nice thing to do to Murray.)

am I really surprised that I get responses like this when I kick him like that?

Instead of trying to approach everything I learned head on, I try to break the lessons up into sensical pieces that I can accomplish really well and practice them until it starts to feel natural.  Right now I’m just focusing on the connected outside rein, inside leg for bend, and no inside rein.  Those three things are hard.  And it takes dedicated practice* for me to insert them into my repertoire.  This is also dedicated practice for Murray — he is slowly figuring out that he can’t just fall through my inside aids and end up on a hot mess of a 5 meter circle.

* Something honestly worth its entire own blog post

That’s my strategy.  But I want to know — what’s your strategy?  I (really really hope that I) can’t be the only one out there who can’t just replicate their clinic rides at home, but you all somehow incorporate them into your riding repertoire too.  So tell me — how do you make those ever-so-valuable clinic lessons carry over into your everyday riding?

(And because I’m a nerd I also take notes.  And measure things.  Quantifiability, yo.)

home again

I got home from Australia on Sunday and promptly drove from my parents’ house (near the airport) to my house so I could sleep in my own bed and see my creatures.  Murray was my first stop, and while he wasn’t exactly pleased to see me, at least he didn’t totally run away.  But I was interrupting his supplement finishing and hay eating with my desire to scratch and pat him and tell him all about my adventures, which is clearly inappropriate.  I should keep my silly human stories to myself.

Once home I did all the adult things you have to do when you get back from vacation — unload the car, water the plants, clean up after pets, take a shower, get out the gifts, have a nap, regret your nap because jet leg, etc.  Fortunately for me, my lovely boyfriend came to my rescue with a happy Jellinore to wake me up, cooked me dinner, and let me watch Masterchef until the wee hours.

image2 (1)Murray was kept incredibly well in my absence.  It is huge to know that you can leave for an extended period and your horse will be more than perfectly happy in your absence.  I got lots of messages with pictures of Murray napping luxuriously in the sunshine from my friends, and of course an awesome reminder that my friends came to visit.

Murray and I also had a terrific first ride back from vacay.  The girl who rides him for me when I’m away must have all the same foibles as me because he felt exactly the same as when I left — in a good way!  He was soft and flexy and very reasonable.  This is especially encouraging considering that my last ride with Murray I really crossed the line from “insisting” to “bullying” about getting him to bend off my inside leg (entirely my fault).

Also, thanks for the encouragement re: when Murray decided to turn the bad behavior up to 11 away from home.  One day he’ll be a really reasonable, broke horse.  I swear.

yves7Murray response: NEVAR

when good ponies go bad

When Megan came to visit locally for a clinic I was super excited, and Peony and I quickly made plans to trailer over there together.  But part of me was a little anxious (it turns out rightfully so) about hauling Murray out for this.  In the past Murray has demonstrated an alarming lack of regard towards trailers and tying, but for the last twelve months we’ve been quite solid citizens away from home.  Unless I’ve failed to tie him correctly, I can’t actually remember the last time Murray broke away from the trailer (and a quick scan of the blog suggests it hasn’t happened in dramatic enough a fashion to warrant a mention).  In fact, in January he stood by the trailer for almost 60 minutes on his own while I watched someone else lesson, and that was before I rode him…  But I brought along a box of extra travel stuff in addition to a hay bag stuffed with alfalfa just in case (I know I’m not supposed to but… sometimes it’s worth the extra distraction).

Let’s start off this unfortunate tale with a cute picture

The clinic venue was pretty quiet when we got there, a few people riding in the various outdoor arenas, horses quietly hanging in small turnouts and larger pastures, and not two minutes after we walked off to let the clinic organizer know we were there but we heard a little scuffle and off Murray was wandering away to go get something to eat elsewhere.  Not a problem, I thought, I just scampered up to him and held him while we checked in for the clinic.  Spot, politely, stayed at the trailer.  We headed back to the trailer, I re-tied Murray so I could get out some of my grooming equipment and as I was pulling something out of the tack room (on the same side to which he was tied) he lifted his head in alarm, pulled back, and snapped his lead rope.

I don’t usually tie Murray near the tack room by habit, as I have seen him spooking at people moving in/out of the tack room, but I wanted him on the side of the trailer closer to the arena so I could keep an eye on him while Peony rode, which necessitated having him on that side of the tack room.  Since he was clearly incapable of standing if I wasn’t immediately next to him, I took up the clinic organizer on her offer to leave Murray in the round pen near the arena while I watched Peony ride.  Murray enjoyed the round pen immensely, staring at people over the walls and kicking up his heels when the sprinklers came on.  When it came time for me to tack up, I tied him back up to the trailer and started picking out his feet.  Murray wobbled a bit and leaned away from his balance point, I held his foot up* but kept it steady, and so he leaned back, I dropped his foot and tried to calm him but nope — snapped baling twine, Murray was loose once more.

At this point I was starting to get suspicious.  I was willing to give Murray the benefit of the doubt the first time, and even the second time, but three trailer breakaways in an hour?  I tied him up one more time experimentally and continued my grooming, and sure enough while I was currying, Murray leaned back, snapped the baling twine, and broke away from the trailer once more.  Now that I was sure of what was going on, I had a plan.

I didn’t have my stud chain with me, so I settled for a good old-fashioned back-it-up beating.  I tied Murray up, pretended to stop paying attention, and grabbed the lead rope the second he pulled back (but after he’d broken away from the trailer) and proceeded to beat the living daylights out of him.  I wanted to see him cry pony tears for his crimes**.  Murray was not having it.  He was feeling especially defiant.  Instead of backing (as he well knows how to do) he kept stepping sideways and turning away from me, and just stopping and invading my personal space.  Also super inappropriate.  So we continued.  Right up until I heard someone say “Excuse me.”

I was asked to stop (though stop what was left non-verbalized, though it was clear from context) as there were children present for lessons and they were concerned.  I totally understood, of course, and then proceeded to angrily curry Murray while holding him in hand and thinking about whether or not I should have felt worse than I did.  We got tacked up, the lesson was great, etc. etc., not the point.  I did take a moment to apologise to both Megan and the clinic organizer, as I didn’t want my (and Murray’s) behavior to reflect poorly on them, and both seemed to kindly understand my position.

I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should have been more contrite about disciplining my horse (I was not), offended that I was stopped from disciplining my horse in a manner that I deemed necessary (I was not), or embarrassed that people thought I was abusing my horse (I was not, on either count).  I have seen people discipline horses far more harshly and thoroughly than I was doing (not an excuse, merely an observation), and in this case it was the lesson Murray needed.  You think that you can decide to break away from the trailer at any point you feel like it?  You, sir, are mistaken.

I thought a lot about whether or not I had other options, based on Murray’s behavior  Had I the halter with me, I would have had him wearing a nylon pull-back halter, so that he disciplined himself for pulling back.  Would a lunge have helped?  Potentially.  Probably not.  Murray wasn’t overly energetic or scared, he just didn’t want to be there any more.  And any kind of lunging that would have gotten him to focus on me in a productive way that wouldn’t just be aimed at tiring him out would have required more tacking up than he had patience for at that point anyway.  A lunge as punishment after he broke away certainly wouldn’t have taught him anything about the behavior that got him on the lunge line, and I don’t really think I would know how to enact lunging as punishment.

This whole thing, as per always, leaves me feeling perplexed, foolish, and more than a little bit like an asshole.  I hated that I had created such a scene that I had to be asked to stop beating my horse, but I stood behind the decision to discipline him.  If Murray only ever gets disciplined at home he will quickly, quickly learn that he doesn’t need to behave away from home.  And I’d rather do it at a small clinic than a big show where I could actually be eliminated for disobedience.  But it wasn’t great.  It seems like every time I can get a little relaxed at home about Murray’s ground manners he springs something like this on me, reminding me that I must be constantly vigilant.

Just to finish up, I will note that the next day for bestieland schooling at WSS Murray stood perfectly by the trailer like a gentleman, even when I did his girth up.  WTF horse.

* Recently Murray has been trying a new trick where he slowly loses his balance while I’m picking out his feet, necessitating me putting his foot down.  At first I worried that he might have a legitimate vestibular issue, but after watching him pointedly not do it to our barn manager or my trainer, having barn manager and trainer in turn see him do it to me, and noting that it happens more and with greater intensity during feeding time, we decided it was just poneh trickz.  Sure enough, after a stern talking to the behavior vanished (at home).

** I feel the need to explain this a bit.  I would like to think that in the time I’ve know Murray I’ve come to understand when he’s doing something because he physically can’t not react that way, and when he’s figured something out like a little pony brain teaser.  In this case I am about 104% sure it was the latter — perhaps the first pull back was based on a spook, but once he realised how easily he could do so, it became calculated.  If a punishment is going to be delivered, it must be immediately following the behavior in question so the two can be associated, so I had to act quickly.  While I don’t want actual tears to slide down Murray’s long nasal bridge, I do want him to remember that he’s not the boss even though he is bigger, stronger, and in some ways smarter.