Thank you everyone for your very kind words and messages about Murray. I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading peoples’ comments and memories about Murray here and on Facebook and Instagram. It really is comforting to know how many people laughed with us and appreciated Murray’s Murrayness. I also appreciated all of your messages about the timing and method of Murray’s euthanasia. They are important discussions to have, and I’m glad that so many people were open to having them.
Speedy has also been a huge comfort over the last few weeks. He’s a super cuddler and always up for a snuggle (especially if you rub his snoot at the same time). He’s very much a quiet-steady-loving presence that I haven’t really experienced before. It really is wonderful to have a horse who enjoys my company as much as I enjoy his.
Speedy has also been making just incredible progress under saddle. I’m just so impressed with how this little potato has been doing. Every week TrJ throws something new at us and every week we struggle, learn, rise to the challenge, and come out even better. And every week, a new challenge awaits and Speedy is right there for that one too.
There are so many puzzle pieces that have gotten us to this point — lessons (a crapload of them!), trainer rides, vet care, dentals, body work, bitting, off-campus adventures — but the piece that made both TrJ and I comment a few weeks ago is that Speedy is so much more receptive to learning. Or, as TrJ put it, “he doesn’t mind you training on him a bit.” (Lol trainer speak is funny sometimes.)
I’m not going to say it’s all the clicker training, but that’s certainly a piece of it. At some point around the three-month mark, Speedy got comfortable with the idea that there were responses we wanted from him that wasn’t just zipping off. He also stopped trying to use speed as an evasion so much throughout a ride. He started trialing other responses, and realized that all the pats and good boys (and yes, treats) were us encouraging him to keep giving us those responses. Once we got some lateral aids on him and we could ask him to move his haunches and shoulders around a bit independently (though he’s still pretty sticky through the shoulders), we had some more movements we could put together to help him figure out even more things.
Speedy even seems more into solving puzzles under saddle. Often we’ll get to work and I’ll start clicking for correct responses or good posture and Speedy will start out eagerly stopping and reaching back for a treat. As we move on, he’ll more and more go for a walk and stretch break after his treat. And as I’ve been phasing out the clicking, or forgetting to click, or working hard in a lesson and not able to find a good place to click, he’s still really responsive to my verbal praise and neck scratches. He doesn’t throw on the brakes and look back at me or anything. But I will see his little ears flick back and forward, then he’ll double down on what he’s doing with a renewed effort. It is very cute.
We have a couple five crazy weeks coming up. Next weekend is our first HT (eeeeeeeeeee!!!! but also holy shit I’ve spent so much money lately), then my in laws visit for some farm stuff, then we have another HT, then I have a family reunion, then our third HT before long break for the summer. The weather (wet, wet, wet) has not made this spring easy on the farm, so it will be flat out in between every HT making sure I stay on top of things here at home and don’t get behind going into summer.
We have so much packed in to the next month or so. Even if we didn’t, I’d be excited for my next month with Speedy. He is just so fun, all the time. But we DO have adventures planned, and getting him out to meet all my friends and get some pro photos is going to be awesome too. (But I will need to stop riding like a potato to enjoy those photos. For real.)
After Murray retired in 2018, he went to live at MIL’s house (where Speedy spent his first three months, I made them meet) in an irrigated pasture with an older retired horse buddy to keep him company. He was pretty delighted by the lottery he had won, and it was quite clear he was in heaven. Whenever I was home to visit I would bring him in, give him a good groom, brush all the tangles out of his mane and tail, and cry a little bit before he went back out.
After a while, Murray decided that continued human management would not be for him. It started with refusing to stand for the farrier without drugs. Then he said no to the vet. Eventually, nobody at the ranch was allowed to catch him.
I could still get him, without deception or difficulty. More often than not, Murray would come sauntering up to me for a good scratch and let me put a little swat on his midline or pick out his feet without a halter on. But it did get harder and slower over time, and the last time I was home he galloped away from me. He came back later, but it was the first time he had viewed me with that much suspicion.
As you might imagine, a horse who can’t be caught is a horse who can’t be managed. And there is only so long a horse, even a Murray, can go without seeing a veterinarian or farrier. While I wish I could point at his rotating club foot or a clear and growing lameness or colic or a disease process, it was nothing so simple. Watching him become more and more feral — and not in the “fat happy retired horse” way — I knew that Murray’s time would be limited.
This year MIL renewed her efforts to halter Murray, so he could be brought in for a trim. About a month ago he kicked her as he fled. And so she called me and said she thought it might be time. His behavior was clearly deteriorating, and even if we couldn’t see head-bobbing lameness from the outside, we both suspected that was pain related. Rather than let Murray get so painful that he couldn’t run from us — or hurt himself more trying to do so — we decided it was best to euthanize him.
Why am I writing so many words about the decision to euthanize my retired horse? Because it was hard. And I hope that other people who might be struggling with the decision or who may have to cross this road in the future might see this option and know that it is a decision to be made with love and kindness. There’s a lot of pushback in our culture about euthanizing apparently healthy animals. Apparently being the key word there, because there’s a lot of vectors that make up “healthy,” much more than just “alive and breathing”.
Murray was 13 and physically sound-adjacent. I “could have” found a retirement or rescue situation for him that would have understood his very, very special needs better and been able to manage him and impoverished myself paying for the rest of his life. I could have built $10k in fencing on the 6 acres behind my house, converted a lean-to into a barn, found a pasture-buddy, and turned my life inside out to bring him home to retire in Oregon. (If we could have gotten him onto a trailer. Also a pretty hard Murray-No.) It would have trashed my life. I would probably have needed to sell Speedy. It would probably have caused a divorce. I could have done that. But I wouldn’t.
In the end, the people who knew Murray and me best agreed that this was the right call. Murray was making it clear that he couldn’t be around people any more. It would not be kind to force him to be around new, different people just for the sake of a few thousand more heartbeats. It would not be kind to stuff him on a trailer to live in the mud for the sake of a few thousand more breaths. And if, as we suspect, his behavior change was caused by increasing pain in his body — though we won’t know, as I didn’t get a necropsy — it would not be kind to insist he keep living in that shell.
Murray was, to be direct (and he was always direct), a pain in the ass. He hated almost everyone, and his distrust of humanity ran deep. Pretty much none of those “good horse manners” came easily to him, nor did they stick around the second things got rough. He was uniquely confident in his own judgment, and intensely unpredictable in whether that judgment would line up with reality or not. He was persistent beyond all mortal ken, a riddle wrapped inside a mystery stuffed into an enigmatically-cute horse suit.
He was my first horse, and I loved him fiercely.
What is there to say about this horse who was so formative in my life? That nothing for us came easy at first, that all our lessons were hard-won, that he was never good for a cuddle?
I think more about the sense of humor, the laughter, the ridiculousness. Murray did not let me take myself too seriously. Which was probably desperately needed.
I think about the way we thought out of the box, got creative, and stuck to our guns.
I think about the times he showed up for me, all the adventures we had with our friends, and the memories we made.
I think about his bangin’ forelock, his incredible shiny body, his baby-forever face.
Murray delivered experience in spades. Not carefully or thoughtfully or delicately, but shoveling it onto you so you had no choice but to adapt lest you drown in chaos.
I will always remember what we learned together. Laugh always. Find the itchy spots. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Get creative. Scream as needed. Fight for what you believe in.
Content warning — euthanasia details below.
If you want to know how you euthanize a horse who can’t be touched, it’s with a bullet. MIL found a cowboy confident in and comfortable with the process. Cowboy grained Murray at the gate for a while to habituate him. The morning they pulled the trigger, Murray dropped instantly, mouth full of grain. I know it’s a controversial method. I feel that if it is kind enough for me to use on my food animals, it is kind enough for me to use with my horse. As much as I wish we could have filled Murray with enough sedatives and painkillers to render him insensate, the process of being caught and injected would have been incredibly stressful to him, and he was a heavyweight at the best of times. I felt this would be swiftest, which is kindest.
Speedy and I had a jam-packed end of March, as the Friday after we got back from Shawna Karrasch we loaded back up for a two-day cross country schooling on “the dry side” at Tulip Springs. I had a lot of farm work to catch up on, so TrJ rode Speedy during the week for me. He came back with a very good report card — his flat work is coming along, he’s getting stronger and more balanced, but TrJ would like to keep jumping him once a week because he’s just so fun.
Oh and also because he could use her help with staying soft to the fences, which I guess is fair. And in reality, it works pretty perfectly with my heinous spring farming schedule, and is exactly why I wanted to be in a program with trainer rides.
On Friday, TrJ had Speedy and I come out for a private lesson, and instructed me to give Speedy a good lunge before coming out to gauge his energy levels and get him to start listening and then bring the lunge line out in case we needed it. I used some of my Shawna strategies during my lunge, and while Speedy wasn’t totally attentive and responding to the game, he did settle in to it and looked for clicks after some gawking. Since he seemed reasonably settled, I wandered out to TrJ on course with the lunge line clipped to my belt loop.
TrJ has a pretty different cross country schooling style to the other (what, three or four total??) trainers I’ve schooled with. She had me trot Speedy around working on the same things we work on at home (bending, going forward and back, a little bit of lateral work) until he felt really, really rideable. If he broke into the canter, I was to bring him back to the trot and keep working at the trot. TrJ wanted me to be able to go forward and back within the trot without tension in his response. She even called me out at one point when I thought about maybe cantering sometime soon and Speedy stepped politely into the canter.
“Did you ask for that?” TrJ yelled at me.
I had to sheepishly admit that no, I had not, and she instructed me to return to the trot. TrJ also had me trot around and between all the different fences, letting Speedy see them from all angles. At one point we trotted alongside between two fences, one of which TrJ was sitting on, and Speedy stiffened his neck against me. TrJ asked me why he did that. I thought it was Speedy telling me he was uncomfortable/uncertain. In this case, I thought it was because he wasn’t sure what I was asking him to do, or what I might ask him to do. Was he going to have to jump that fence again in a minute? TrJ agreed that it had to do with Speedy’s discomfort and lack of understanding, so told me to revisit any fences he stiffened at like that until he could stay soft around them. It never took more than a second pass by a fence for Speedy to stay on task and with me.
After an eternity at the trot (okay probably like 15-18 minutes), TrJ said that Speedy looked like he was ready to canter, and I desperately was. So we repeated it all at the canter. One thing I didn’t do as much, and TrJ didn’t push me on it, was ask Speedy to go forward in the canter. I didn’t know how much zip I would get in the canter, and this horse has taught me more than any other that I absolutely am not stronger than a horse. So I wanted to keep us both in control, and if that meant not opening up his canter too much in an open space, that was just fine with me.
We did, eventually, jump. But we warmed up (at the trot and canter) for probably 25-35 minutes, way way longer than I’ve ever warmed up for XC before, especially just schooling. TrJ let me know that her plan was to take Speedy over all the various elements that Tulip had to offer and see what he remembers and what he needs to work on.
Speedy was exactly as brave and forward to the fences as I remembered, and didn’t take a second look at anything. But he did get tense, pull, and fling himself over the fences from the very beginning. Sometimes he over-jumped, sometimes he just surged to the fence, but almost all of those first jumps involved Speedy breaking tempo, ignoring my half halts, putting his nose up, and doing exactly what he wanted. TrJ had me keep circling back to the same log at the trot, focusing on keeping the tempo and keeping him on the bit as best I could, until Speedy started to jump softly, in tempo, lifting through his withers.
Next, we strung a few fences together. And every time Speedy got tense and rushed to the fences I just came back to the trot as quickly as I could and circled back to the fence at the trot. I don’t remember it taking more than one circle at any fence in a string to get a softer jump out of Speedy.
I’ve never had a coach on cross country make such a point of getting a calm, quiet response to every fence. Usually over-jumping and pulling is laughed off as great enthusiasm, maybe the horse jumps the fence once more, and then everyone moves right along. TrJ has talked to me at length at home about how rideable she wants all her horses (Speedy included), and I’ve seen her dig into other students about getting their horse rideable and responding correctly. Having Speedy approach each fence steadily and quietly, and jump each fence softly and with correct form, is an important element of that rideability. Speedy’s signature stag-leap is not a good habit to be jumping in. It might be the response that he’s “most comfortable” with, but our goal is to reprogram that response into something more reasonable, more stick-able, and less prone to scare the shit out of Speedy (or me!) when we start jumping bigger fences.
And how do we reprogram that response? More reps of jumping fences correctly, instead of in bambi-mode.
TrJ also introduced us to some technical elements (banks, ditches, sunken road) really systematically, which really came as no surprise after the way she approached us jumping a simple log on the ground. We took extra time at the banks to make sure Speedy and I were both on the same page, since I told TrJ right up front that I’m terrible at down banks. TrJ had me grip with my lower calf — none of this lean-back nonsense that I’ve gotten from every other trainer ever — rather than my thighs, and Speedy helped me out by being the most reasonable and conservative down-bank-dropper ever. Love him.
Our private school was long, and we covered pretty much every jump I was comfortable with that was out there. I kept expecting TrJ to say “that was good, let’s end it there for him” because that often happens in our lessons after Speedy and I complete an exercise well. But we kept on trucking along, and Speedy got more and more rideable and more and more sensible throughout the day.
On Saturday we rode in a group, and Speedy came out both more relaxed and more amped. On Friday, he felt nervous-new-place-what’s-going-on rushy. On Saturday, he felt strong-happy-friends-are-here-I-love-this-game rushy. But, he was responding to my clicks and looking for treats way more on Saturday. At several points he wouldn’t graze, but he did turn to me for a carrot, so that was neat.
Again, we schooled very systematically. Speedy was much more reasonable on approach to the fences, and TrJ noted that his tendency to stiffen, pull, and stag leap came when I was softening too much on approach to the fence. (Which is exactly what I do at home, and exactly what I’ve been dinged for as a rider for a decade so…. maybe I’ll finally break that habit?) TrJ reminded me to keep riding Speedy to the base of each fence, and I worked on staying effective and supportive in that ride (rather than chasing/driving).
We cantered more fences on Saturday too! But the same rules applied. If Speedy hollowed, pulled, and ignored my half halt, I just had to circle him back around and come to the fence again. It’s a bit easier for me to manage him in the canter, because it’s a gait I’m more effective in. Also, I put my stirrups up a few holes and was actually making contact with the knee blocks on my saddle, which was astonishingly helpful. Weird, how equipment works best when you use it as intended.
Overall, a really good outing for both of us, though I probably got more out of it than Speedy did. Speedy is still as confident and fun on cross country as the horse who convinced me to buy him at the geländeplatz. He’s SO game (seriously, not an ounce of refusal or balk in him out there) and so enthusiastic. I want to hold on to that, even while we rebuild his habits to be a bit more reasonable. TrJ is so organized, I can actually see a path for us to get that rideability out there. Which on its own feels pretty amazing, after floundering around in my riding for the last few years.
We will definitely need a few more outings before I feel show-worthy, which might be hard to wrangle with the spring schedule, but we’ll get there!
Sunday morning dawned clear and warm in comparison to Saturday (up to 47F from a thrilling 42F, which is lovely when you’re watching a clinic), and I took Speedy for a little walk and round pen run in the morning before our session. I clicked a bit for Speedy trotting and cantering when I asked, but I also let him stare out of the round pen and do his own thing a fair bit too.
Speedy came into the arena ready to play again, and Shawna walked me through the steps we would take to do A-to-Bs. First, we made sure Speedy was catching on to the target with Shawna. Once he realized that Shawna would give him treats AND let him play with the toy, he was right there. Then Shawna would say “ready? okay!” so that I knew she was about to send Speedy, and point toward me. After that, it was my responsibility to be as exciting as possible to get Speedy to join me.
After realizing that the person who had just sent him (and subsequently gone unresponsive) wasn’t going to be very interesting, Speedy was happy to head over to the other person and play with them instead. I love how much he loves people, and the more I’ve been clicker training with him the more he seems to want to engage with me, not just nibble on/mouth me.
I immediately saw application for this game at shows. Managing Speedy’s energy in a productive way away from home is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Lunging can be a great tool, but not all horses calm down and relax during lunging, especially in chaotic show environments. I also need something that helps me keep calm and engaged (a big realization I made during this clinic), so playing a game with Speedy in a lunging area rather than just sending him in circles and worrying about his responses to the outside world is going to be super helpful for me.
Lots of clinic participants had questions about clicker training under saddle, and I really wanted to tack up and get on Speedy and do some clicking under saddle. Less so we could learn or demonstrate anything specific, but because I wanted Speedy to collect some clicks under saddle in a new place. So it worked out perfectly for me to tack up after lunch and come back ready to ride in my second session.
Luckily for me, when we got into the arena, Meika was turning out the resident horses at Polestar. Speedy was fascinated… and a little aroused. I let him stare out of the arena as the horse before us finished up, clicking when he would check back in with me or respond to me asking him to bring his head around with a direct rein aid. But he definitely wasn’t really with me, which he made clear by trotting off a few times and spinning to orient himself back toward the horses outside of the arena. I felt a little of that rising adrenaline that comes as fear just starts to softly grip me, and focused myself on what I could do. Could I ask Speedy to woah and click for that? No, not really. Could I click for him putting his head down? Surprisingly, yes. Could I let him look out of the arena to explore his environment and then redirect the energy back inward? Sometimes.
Shawna asked us what we had been working on lately, and I responded with our process on the woah aid and asking Speedy to lower his head in response to rein pressure. So she set up a couple of targets so we could work on woah, clicking Speedy for slowing his motion as he approached the target rather than for actually touching the target.
Once we got into the game and Speedy realized Shawna was playing target with him, he completely forgot about the outside horses and focused inward on the game. It was awesome. I have never been able to successfully redirect any of my horses’ attention that quickly, from the ground or under saddle. And even though Shawna told me to just be a passenger and let her click and feed Speedy for the beginning of the game, I calmed down immediately. I’ve been thinking about this a ton since the clinic, since clearly my ability to manage my horse’s attention and energy in an environment is going to be affected by my own energy there.
Speedy was a great demo horse for clicker training under saddle. I had just charged up the actual clicker for him the night before (as mentioned previously, I usually use a tongue cluck a la Elisa Wallace) and under saddle the clicker itself was meaningless to him. So I paired the click with the cluck for him to start connecting them under saddle. Speedy also lost all the context for what the target meant when Shawna wasn’t with it, and instead tried to follow Shawna around. This required a little creativity on Shawna’s part to set him up for success. Once he did get that what he was playing with was the target, he immediately started to swing his head back to me after a cluck to get his reward…. after he took a moment to enjoy himself mauling the target a bit first.
The session wasn’t terribly productive in terms of solidifying or making progress on Speedy’s woah aid. However, it was very productive to help him start to play with targets under saddle, which will definitely be a piece I use to help us with other movements. And even more, it showed me just how much I can draw Speedy’s focus back into the arena with targets and games.
This is something I’ve struggled with at home, especially when things change outside the indoor arena doors Speedy is desperate to look at them and doesn’t always want to come back and refocus his attention on work. And who can blame him? But if I can make work more like games, I think Speedy will rejoin me much more readily.
It’s funny; I’ve been into clicker training for a long time now, but it took until this clinic for me to realize how much clicker training would benefit me in addition to my horse. Not just in having a better behaved horse, but by giving me a way to exert control over my environment and create predictability in strange settings. I’m training myself while I’m training my horse. It’s fricking genius. And it’s also exactly what I need.
You know when you meet someone and you immediately just want to spend more time with them, soaking in everything they have to say and everything you can learn from them and be their best friend forever and ever? That’s how I felt meeting nad working with Shawna Karrasch this weekend.
I’ve known about Shawna for a long time, but for some reason never bothered to delve too deeply into the prolific content she has created around R+ training in horses. What a fool past Nicole was. There is so, so, so much that Murray would have benefitted from in Shawna’s work (and other R+ trainers who have a systematic method) and I was too busy being a ding dong thinking I could solve it all with our *~!magical relationship!~*
On Friday, Speedy and I loaded up for a 5-ish hour haul just north of Seattle to the beautiful Polestar Farm for the clinic. I got a late start, but it took me about as long to load and organize the trailer as I thought it would, so I’m glad I’m accurate on that front at least. Speedy loaded compliantly like he always does, and then immediately couldn’t take any treats or eat any hay in the trailer like he always does. Minus a bit of crummy traffic just north of Seattle it was smooth sailing and an easy haul that I expect I will do again.
I’ve been thinking about and prepping for this clinic for weeks. There is so much I want to work on and improve with Speedy, but there’s truly only so much you can do in a weekend. I was also completely torn between my innate desperation to be a “good student” and be a good demo horse for the clinic and “do well”, and to actually accept my horse where he was and work with and learn from that.
Luckily for me, Speedy’s clicker-learning was progressing in leaps and bounds in the week-ish before the clinic, and I felt very prepared going in. I knew that Speedy was well conditioned to the bridge (I cluck instead of clicking, but have subsequently trained him on the clicker also), he was started on liberty leading, and was getting there on target training. So as long as Speedy didn’t show up and forget all of his bridge conditioning, I knew we’d be able to make good headway.
I also knew that even if Speedy did show up super shy and without any bridge conditioning, we’d be able to make headway with that too. A big piece of what I need to work on with Speedy is how he disengages, becomes aloof, and retreats inside himself when he is anxious. On the ground, this seems to mostly manifest as desperately finding the nearest patch of grass or hay to nosh away madly. But under saddle it means I lose all rideability, and I’m not sure how I’m going to show this horse without rideability.
The clinic format involved a lecture on Saturday morning, a first session with the horses on Saturday afternoon, then two horse sessions on Sunday. Speedy came out ready to learn on Saturday. Shawna had asked what I wanted to work on with him, and I said he would likely come into the arena approaching threshold and redirecting his attention away from me, so I wanted to focus on bringing his attention back to me and keeping him engaged with me in a relaxed and positive way. Speedy was a little wide-eyed when we first walked into the arena, but I think the presence of the crowd actually really comforted him. Speedy LOVES people, probably second only to grass. I clicked and treated him for standing by me and practicing our default behavior (look away) while we waited for Shawna to finish up with the horse before us.
As we talked about the behaviors I wanted to shape in Speedy, Shawna commented that he really didn’t look like he was at or over threshold, and I agreed. The crowd, the clicker games, and the inviting arena meant Speedy was really not that worried about what was going on. (This delighted me because it meant my plan was working – more on that later.) Since I wanted to click for relaxed engagement but not encourage Speedy to start crawling into my pocket, Shawna suggested we work on another activity so I could capture the elements of engagement with me that I wanted.
So we started working on liberty leading and having Speedy stick with me, not wander off to do his own thing, and stay on my right hand side. Shawna directed me to click for tiny elements of engagement — a flick of the ear toward me, or when Speedy directed an eye toward me but didn’t turn his head. That little piece was key. I wanted him directing his attention toward me without swinging his head or body parts into me. Horses don’t need to curl around you to pay attention to you. And now that I think more about it, I actually want Speedy looking around and taking in his environment so he can process everything around him, but I also want him paying attention to me.
Shortly after taking his halter off, Speedy wandered away from me to stare out over the arena wall at the turnouts. I stopped and watched him, and Shawna told me to keep walking and click for him following me. She didn’t want me to get drawn into his distraction, but keep on having a good time doing whatever I was doing and reward Speedy for making the choice to be with me. This first trot back toward me ended up with Speedy greeting some of the auditors. Excellently, when I continued on to keep “having fun” somewhere else, Speedy chose to join me there also. Shawna reminded me not to click as soon as he started walking, but click once he got into position by my side. I didn’t want to reward him for just moving, once again I wanted to reward him for moving with me.
After greeting the auditors, Speedy had a big standing shake and it was like he shook off all his worries and exuberantly ran up to me for his next click. There was a little play rear and some other cavorting, and he disappeared again to have a little canter around me in a 20m circle. I haven’t taught him to free lunge, so it was very funny to me that his play took that form. After a few circles he came right back to me, and we recommenced the liberty leading.
Shortly, Speedy realized that I wasn’t going to be playing his games and if he wanted treats he needed to be along side me playing my games. Turning right was easy, because it involved me stepping into his space and getting closer to him. Turning left was a bit sillier, since Speedy would shake his head and trot up to me once he realised I’d stepped away. Since his energy was up, Shawna told me to then wait for him to relax and check in with me before clicking and treating.
The session probably lasted about 20 minutes, which is longer than I would usually do for a focused session trying to shape a specific behavior, but is pretty on par for the fun/play sessions Speedy and I do. Speedy definitely brought his focus more toward me as we continued, though certainly part of that was due to becoming more comfortable in the environment. One super neat part of this was that I tried a new behavior in the liberty leading — slowing down — and Speedy was right there with me walking slowly and keeping an eye on me.
I got some great clicks from Shawna myself, as she told me “good girl!” for my timing several times. “Good girl” or “clever girl” are hugely rewarding for me, I love it when people I respect say that. Yes, I am a bitch, through and through.
The lesson itself was also very validating for me. I knew I wanted to get Speedy more engaged and active with me but also relaxed, but I hadn’t quite figured out how I wanted to do that. So to have Shawna agree that I wanted to aim for this (and give me a plan of how to do it) was super. Having Shawna agree with my assessment that Speedy wasn’t really at threshold confirmed my own read of my horse, which was another good thing to hear.
I also loved that I showed up to this lesson really well-prepared. It felt so good that the goals I set for Speedy were things that were achievable, useful, and productive in the time we had. It was also fantastic for Speedy to have such a fun and positive experience in a new place! Sometimes I worry that hauling him out for lessons, which are inevitably rather tough because he’s distracted and being asked to do things that aren’t his strengths, is not a very rewarding experience for him. But clicker games away from home proved to be very rewarding for both of us!
Speedy and I are a little bit different than your typical new-horse-lyweds. We had our pre-honeymoon in California while MIL was working with him regularly and I got to learn how to ride him a bit. Rather than taking a few months of bliss before I unraveled all of his lovely training we got right down to business on that front, and I couldn’t really access any of it without gadgets.
We probably accelerated things with TrJ’s plan for getting Speedy really rideable and broke, which takes a fairly different route than MIL’s (much more dressage-focused training) and pushes some buttons that Speedy had convinced me to leave alone. Suffice to say all the beautiful dressage training was gone before day one. The jump training too — we’re doing some rewiring so things have been getting messy.
Seven weeks later it’s coming back, and I think we’re actually in a stronger position than before. Not only can Speedy get round and hold my hand in the connection a bit, he’s quicker and quicker to go there as a first resort rather than flip his head in the air and insist PONY KNOWS BEST. Maybe even more importantly, he’s letting me get in and change his body and put aids on and rebalance and all those things.
So in that regard, we really skipped the honeymoon (or maybe MIL got it all?) and dove right into getting thoroughly sick of one another and trying to figure out how to make our lives together. (But I am LOVING the TrJ lessons and path and am so so so glad I found her.)
On the personality and getting-to-know-you front though, it’s been as honeymooney as you could imagine. In some ways Speedy is exactly the same as he was in California. He still loves people, still loves to put everything he can reach in his mouth, and love scritches in all the good spots. It did take me a little while for Speedy to relax enough to actually enjoy scritches again, but now that he’s settled in he’s absolutely not shy of telling me where the good spots are (right now mostly behind his shoulders where his new coat is coming in aggressively, and between his butt cheeks/upper inner thigh).
I figured out that he’s not a huge fan of the indoor barn-attached-to-arena life. Speedy was originally stalled on the arena-side of the barn aisle, and he spent a lot of time staring toward the arena semi-tense when there were horses in there. Once we moved him across to the other side of the barn aisle a whole bunch of other slightly-concerning things cleared up as well, like intermittent diarrhea (some totally normal poops and some just…. basically diarrhea) and higher-than-expected spookiness.
Speedy will dump his water bucket every night if it’s left on the ground, so we clipped his up on the wall. However, if you do leave a bucket of water on the ground he prefers to drink from that one. Sorry, friend. You make poor choices with ground water. Also, won’t eat soaked hay pellets but will eat wheat bran mash poured over his beet pulp and ration balancer. Also also, will tip a full feed pan on occasion for no reason. Oh and homeboy is extremely well hydrated and pees to match it — his stall is always absurdly messy for such a small horse.
Hony will be absolutely quiet in turnout with his head down grazing as long as there is at least one other horse out there. Doesn’t matter which horse, any horse will do. Buddy horse being stupid? No problem, Speedy got grass. Also, he will graze happily with the leadrope slung over his back without moving anywhere fast if there’s someone in view. Love that But if he realizes he’s alone the panic shenanigans come out in full force and shoes will be pulled. Speedy and the farrier are fast friends right (actually, new farrier is fast friends with all the horses at our barn right now!!).
And I imagine there are so many more discoveries to come, of course.
This weekend we take our second adventure together since Speedy came home. Today I drive North of Seattle to attend a Shawna Karrasch clicker training clinic and I am SO EXCITED. I’ve been signed up for this clinic for three months and signed up literally the moment it opened.
I’m so excited that Speedy’s clicker training basics are pretty strong so we can get into some fun stuff with Shawna. I have a whole list of things I want to work on with him and we absolutely will not be able to touch on most of them in one weekend. But it will be so good to work with her and get some homework!
The most confusing thing in figuring out Speedy’s (remedial, challenging, constipated, convoluted, muddled) learning patterns was that he clued in to the click = treat thing real quick. It was just the next step he dawdled on.
I’ve clicker trained a few animals now — to greater or lesser success, but I’ve always been able to train at least a few behaviors on cue — and I don’t remember there being such a lag between click = treat and behavior = click = treat before. It took weeks of daily clicking before that piece fell into place. I would do something with Speedy, click for the behavior I saw, and he would eagerly turn to me to get his treat. And then when I tried to do that same thing again, it was like I’d never clicked for it before.
I started clicker training Speedy on January 20th or so. It wasn’t until February 14th that Speedy realized “I can… go to a place…. to get more treats?” and it took another week before he started to repeat, offer, and iterate on behaviors, looking to me even if I hadn’t clicked just to see if a treat was forthcoming. Even now (March 6th, another two weeks later), he’s still not totally tuned in to me and looking to collect clicks. There are definitely still some dots to connect.
The first hint of processing and learning came with the mounting block training. Of course one of Speedy’s problems was running off at the mounting block. After a few days of off/on standing still/wandering off at the mounting block, I realized I wasn’t giving the horse the repetitions he needed to actually get the concept (and I wasn’t doing myself any favors). So I took a night to rebuild Speedy standing at the mounting block. I clicked for standing at the block while I was on the ground, up on the steps, on both sides of his body, weighting the stirrup, leaning on the saddle, sitting in the saddle. And once I got my butt into the saddle I asked Speedy to walk an aimless lap of the arena back to the mounting block, got off, and did it again.
Somewhere around rep four or five, Speedy cut the arena in thirds and walked right back to the mounting block where he stopped hesitantly. I want to say he turned back and looked at me expectantly for his treat, but he didn’t. (That came later though, and it is amazing every time he does it.) He did, however, keep making smaller circles and dropping me back off at the mounting block sooner and sooner, in addition to standing rock steady while I got on and off him. He was getting it. Even if he didn’t get that his standing-still was what was getting him the treat, he was getting that this place was the place where he got treats, and he could get more treats by going to the place. It was a solid first step.
To further break up Speedy’s creative impaction, Kate suggested that I click a lot and do it fast — getting my reward rate up above 15 clicks per minute. I’m not sure where I can attribute this idea (maybe 101 things to do with a box?), but I also wanted to click for a lot of different behaviors. So I tried to walk the line of clicking a lot, but not just for the same old behaviors Speedy tended to offer (have I mentioned before that he wants to put things in his mouth?). I threw TrJ’s ball in the arena, and Speedy and I started there.
I clicked for everything. As long as Speedy was doing something with the ball, it got a click. Eventually, he picked it up and I gave him a huge pile of treats for that. He picked the ball up a few more times that evening, and the next day he tried climbing up on it with a front foot. That got another jackpot reward.
Megan shared a post about the training game “Chase the Tiger”, where you encourage (over many sessions) your horse to chase and attack a “tiger” on the end of a stick. So I got a flag, and Speedy and I clicked around with that too. Speedy wasn’t willing to chase the tiger at anything other than a meandering walk, but he was happy to mush the flag with his face, push it around, and try to step on it.
The next week, I threw Speedy in the arena with an empty feed bag for some turnout during the Arctic freeze. Once I clicked a few times for interacting with the bag, Speedy was happy to go to town on that thing. After a bit, the feed bag became as much reinforcement as the treats were.
In addition to free-form clicker games, I started incorporating a ton of clicking into our ground work. When Speedy went forward from a single cluck? Click. Woahed from a prr? Click. Yielded his hind quarters from a whip tap, my hand, or my energy? Click. I didn’t want to get into specifics or refining movements, I just wanted Speedy to connect the idea that different aids mean different things and all kinds of behavior will be rewarded. And all of this was alongside continued clicking for picking up his hind feet easily during grooming, standing/lining up at the mounting block, as well as a bunch of things under saddle.
Three weeks out from the clicker intensive (and five weeks after starting in full training), Speedy’s learning has improved tremendously. For the most part, I can put one leg on under saddle and he knows it means to move over, not spurt out in front of me. If I keep my leg on, I might even get a second and third step over. And then I can put two legs on and Speedy knows he can go. He stands like a rock at the mounting block and often tries taking me back there for a second treat. I’ve even been able to incorporate some of the bending and alignment aids under saddle to help him maintain a better posture and shape.
We still have a long way to go in terms of developing Speedy as a learner, and especially as a problem solver. He still gets confused easily and reverts to a few comfort behaviors (chomping, backing up). I’m still being really careful to reward heavily when Speedy makes the right choice, and pay attention to what he wants as a reward. I’ve expanded his repertoire of behaviors and his comfort zone, but he doesn’t necessarily enjoy solving problems (especially under saddle). But it is super comforting to have him respond to my aids with different behaviors, instead of just pulling forward and going faster or telling me that he’s stressed out and really can’t handle anything right now.
I feel like we’ve found a balance of rides/training/lessons/games that works for us, and it feels so good to be making the horse both more rideable and more well-rounded. We’re still in three lessons a week and some trainer rides, and of course we’ll keep up the groundwork and clicker games, so I expect things to keep ticking right along. But I’m also super excited that in a couple of weeks we will be going to a Shawna Karrasch clinic!! I am so excited to hear her insights and incorporate the exercises and lessons she will get us started on to help Speedy get EVEN STRONGER at learning.
When I first started doing groundwork with Speedy, I noticed that he made a lot of mistakes with the direction the human was sending him. When it was me sending him, I assumed the mistakes were because of a lack of clarity in my newbish directions. When it was MIL and Sheryl, I figured it was Speedy’s inexperience. And one day after it persisted for months, I thought “it’s like he’s just guessing.” I never took data (cursepast Nicole), but I’m sure if I had I would have seen that Speedy’s hit rate on which direction to travel when sent was no better than guessing.
That was probably the first inkling I had that Speedy wasn’t learning well from traditional pressure/release training. Looking back on it, I maybe should have seen pieces of it in his work with Sheryl, where he offered the same response (go forward — not forward? go up — not up? go forward — not forward????) over and over and over and over again, and didn’t seem to iterate based on previous releases. Even Murray, Hater of All Things and King of Evasions, responded quickly and precisely to the clarity of pressure/release training by Cowboy Dave. Or in our lesson with the local H/J trainer where Speedy pretty much never offered to soften into the connection or move sideways off my leg.
Once Speedy moved here, I immediately started clicker training with him and immediately thought “why isn’t this working better?” I started with basic manners training, but quickly moved to husbandry behaviors that needed brushing up. For example, Speedy had never really picked up his hind feet with ease when asked. I know several horses who have never been clicker trained and dutifully pick up each foot in order as you travel around their body. But I’d practically have to drag the hony’s back feet out from under him every time I wanted to clean them. And I knew he could pick up his feet. I’d seen him walk. And I knew he’d had his feet cleaned before and shoes put on. I’d seen it! I’d paid for it!
But lo and goddamn behold no matter how much clicking and treating I did for picking up his feet, he didn’t get better about picking them up when asked. He actually got worse about it the second day I tackled it. And he never offered the behavior just to get a cookie. That’s what (food motivated) conditioned animals do. They offer the rewarded behavior to get the cookie. The horse was food motivated, no doubt about it. He just…. hadn’t actually registered the conditioning?
Then there was a moment when I realized Speedy didn’t really yield to pressure at all. At some point in this, Speedy put his head way up in the air — I was probably messing with his face — and I thought “great, what an opportunity to ask him to bring his head down for me”. After a while I was basically putting my entire weight onto the lead rope and he was just standing there with over a hundred pounds hanging off his poll in his rope halter looking at me with a slightly confused expression. I don’t actually remember how that one ended.
I also got a pretty healthy dose of hmmm dumped into my brain over our first three lessons with TrJ. During our flat lesson, we started to tackle leg yields. I could get a few solid steps off my right leg, but off the left leg Speedy was jackknifing through his withers. When I would half halt on the right to realign him, we lost the sideways movement, and when my left leg came back on he’d scoot forward instead of sideways. No amount of gentle tapping with the dressage whip got him to step over with his left hind. When I tackled this later on the ground it was the same story — there was a fair bit of whip boinging around on Speedy’s hock before he thought to step over and I had a chance to click and treat.
The next day we warmed up for a cavaletti lesson with more leg yields and they were actually worse than the day before. To utterly anthropomorphize it, it was like Speedy had spent the night thinking about how he could help me compensate for this bizarre leg thing I was doing and the best way to do that would be to double down on doing nothing when I put just one leg on him as a cue. And if the cue got really big, he could always just go forward. Faster.
The metaphorical shit really hit the proverbial wall the next week, during Speedy’s fourth trainer ride/lesson in one week. After a good ride with TrJ on Monday and lessons on Tuesday and Wednesday with me where he was pretty much on board with the connection agreement, things unraveled quickly on Thursday. There were a couple of distractions (haul in horses) in the arena, and Speedy Just Could Not. He Could Not put his head down, he Could Not hold my hand in the connection, he Could Not canter around the short end of the arena, and he Most Certainly Could Not canter around the short end of the arena and hold the connection and put his head down. TrJ suggested that I exit and come back later, and I gladly left the arena, where I promptly discovered that Speedy also Absolutely Could Not stay out of my personal space. When I made a point of it he backed into the muck tub, scared himself, and ran over the top of me. The horse was clearly not okay. But I couldn’t really understand why.
I was frustrated. Not because I couldn’t jump or because Speedy couldn’t turn the corner. There were lots of good reasons he might not have been able to turn left that day: being sore from a week of heavy work, the slightly bad setup for the turn with the jumps placed as they were, having a minor identity crisis as Derek Zoolander instead of Speedy Gonzales. I was frustrated because I kept having to say no, no, no to this horse and I had so few opportunities to say yes. And when he did get yesses, Speedy didn’t seem to care about getting them again.
I didn’t get it. Speedy likes people. He wants to be with people. He likes food. He wants to eat all the food. But he couldn’t seem to put it all together into doing things that got him more food or made things easier under saddle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he wasn’t hearing what we were saying. More that it was like every time he heard it was the first time he heard it, so he never had the chance to learn from it.
Because obviously the horse can learn things, right? He goes, he stops (mostly), he jumps, he goes faster (mostly), he wears tack, he leads politely, he he knows that “good boy” probably means a down transition is coming. He knows that if nobody is looking and Bridget’s stall is empty he can slither out under the stall guard and go snack on some alfalfa. He’s clearly capable of learning. I just hadn’t figured out how to tap into that.
Maybe there’s such a gulf between how Germans teach horses things and how I teach horses things that it really was Greek to him (doubt it). Or maybe, for whatever reason, Speedy never learned how to problem solve. A lot of his life was a greatest hits show of the things he did best — run fast (XC), jump big (Bundeschampionate), put it in his mouth (his reward cookies obvs) — and skipping over the things that he didn’t do so great (dressage).
Not a lot of time on the “hard things” means not a lot of time trying to figure out how to make those things easier on yourself. Not a lot of time building the learning and reward system in your brain that says “well, when I put my nose down everything got easier last time, so maybe I’ll try that again”. And if you’re perseverative — and cleverative — enough, just enough time being ridden by children helps you realize “when the small one rides, I can almost certainly outlast any attempts at doing the hard things”. This could definitely explain big pieces of it.
Speedy was offering me what he knew how to do. It’s just that all he thought he knew was to go fast, jump big, and put his nose in the air (also put it in his mouth, but that was less of an under-saddle thing). And when those things didn’t work, he just tried, tried again — at those same three things.
My current and best theory is that the remedial learning is a combination a few related things: one, Speedy’s deep reliance on the 3 behaviors he is very comfortable with offering (pretty simple: go fast, jump big, put it in your mouth/put your nose in the air); two (related to one), some rather intense creative constipation preventing him from trialing any new behaviors; three, not understanding that his behavior controls the treat/reward delivery system.
So to get better learning? Break up the creative constipation and help Speedy learn that his behavior can control his treat-laden environment. Next, we break out the x-lax.
I forgot what it’s like having your own horse to train. It is…. way more emotional than riding lease horses. Especially half lease horses. But it also gives me soooo much more control than I could ever have sharing a horse with someone else, and that is pretty precious.
Speedy and I have 3 lessons a week with TrJ, and they are solid, intense lessons. So I have no qualms about taking things easy on non-lesson days: trail riding, hacking, and clicker training. Solidifying what we work on with TrJ and smoothing out the lumps and bumps that are inevitably so much bigger when we’re not under her watchful eye. Which is how I found myself doing nothing but walking last Sunday, working on nothing but picking up the connection and helping Speedy understand that dumping his entire body mass onto his underneck is simply not necessary (or allowed, really).
I know that Speedy’s reaction when I pick up the reins is a symptom of bigger problems — he’s pretty weak about yielding to pressure in general — and a big part of our connection issues. I don’t think he’s being rude or naughty. I think he literally does not understand the response I’m looking for when I pick up the reins. So he responds the way his little sausage-pony instincts demand, which is to assume the sausage-pony shape and go from there.
I have touched on this before, and once I’ve got my thoughts organized plan to expand on it, but I also really don’t think Speedy has a good concept of learning. When you ask him to do something different or new he leans heavily on the one response he’s really confident in: going faster. And when that doesn’t work, he might try going backwards or possibly stopping or putting something in his mouth to chomp on it. Other than those four things, though, not a lot on offer from the little guy. It’s weird.
So we walk. You know I love a good click and treat, so I started tackling this on the ground, asking Speedy to yield to the pressure of the halter or bridle and then clicking and treating heavily when he tucked his nose in or brought it around. There was a good bit of that underneck-jutty-chin resistance to yielding to halter pressure at first, too. It was like Speedy wanted to push his chin into my hand or the halter or noseband when I asked him to yield — despite the rest of his face being in the way. So there was a lot of bad habit-resistance to break through.
The chin-up response is so, so, so thoroughly entrenched under saddle. On Sunday we walked for a long time. And the ugliness and resistance and chin jutting did not decrease quickly, despite the ample treats. Speedy actually started resisting me for longer to the left, though he was very quick to yield and soften to the right. I think this was a bit of an extinction burst, since he did suddenly start to yield to the left and even lean on my hands when I would pick up the reins. Time will tell.
We had three more lessons this week and a trainer ride, so plenty of heavy work and learning for the Speedy creature. It seems like reprogramming Speedy’s response to the reins is starting to work, since our flatwork this week was the best it has ever been.
This weekend, we’ll walk. I want him to positively dive into my hands when I pick up the reins. I want his response to soften to the rein to be even more strongly entrenched than the chin-jutting. And I will hopefully have many opportunities to click and treat and reward the hony for his beautiful, correct, and sweet yielding to the reins. I just know it.