first date with a cowboy

Murray and I had our first horsemanship lesson on Monday. It was incredible and emotional and horrifying and challenging and amazing. I’m going to do the best I can to cogently put what we worked on and learned down here, but four days later I’m still having magical realizations about what we did, so I’m guessing I’m going to miss large pieces. This is post is long and filled with verbal diarrhea. There’s no way I can sum up our 90 minutes to one, three, or even six main take-aways. I could probably do 10…. maybe.

I’ve never had or sought out horsemanship lessons before for…. reasons. Reasons that range from good to uninformed. To keep it short, I basically didn’t seek out or attend horsemanship lessons for three reasons.

First, there wasn’t a good/quality/reputable horsemanship person who was accessible to me. There was a guy who came to a dressage barn near us in California, but whenever he was in town I seemed to be gone. Plus, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the horses at the barn that he was supposedly working with, which didn’t encourage me to change my plans to be in town for one of his clinics. For what it’s worth, my thoughts on that trainer have since changed.

Second, I’ve seen a lot of people take the lessons they’ve learned at horsemanship clinics and then do really weird shit with them. Everything from unintentionally train their horses to ignore them to beating their horses over the head with flag sticks. I realize it’s not entirely fair to judge the teacher by the many idiot students that exist in this world once they leave the instructor’s supervision. But as someone who knows a little something about teaching humans, it’s hard not to look at people whapping a horse in the face with a knotted lead rope and expecting the horse to magically know that it means “back up” without wondering how good the teacher is.


i am just the best teacher
(this post will be speckled with hardly-relevant media because I didn’t get any of our actual session)

Third, I know how Murray does with pressure/release training and it’s not well. I also know that I suck at pressure/release training because I don’t understand the timing. I watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s mustang training videos this year, and I was like “wow, she’s great at this, but I have no fucking clue how she’s doing it”. This made me think that pressure/release training with a stranger — a man, no less — would not necessarily be a great training avenue for us.

Despite all my trepidation, I was very interested to see how Murray would do with this cowboy. I know he could be better behaved, and while clicker training was very helpful for a while, we have definitely hit a plateau there (the fault is mine, as I’m terrible at training duration). So if there was another tool that I could use to install better behavior in my horse, I was wiling to go with it.

I got Murray in from the pasture and was just about to pick out his feet when Dave showed up in the barn aisle. It was a perfect storm of things, really: Murray was wearing his blanket for only the second time all year, the tractor and muck cart were right near the grooming area, and a strange man was hanging about. Murray, predictably, was not really interested in standing still. I had ditched the treat pouch to avoid unnecessarily distracting my horse.

Over the course of picking out his feet and taking off his blanket, Dave asked me a few questions about Murray. What was it that Julie was concerned about specifically? How would I describe the horse’s behavior?


ermmmm….. his behavior is hilarious?

Dave wanted to change Murray over to a knotted rope halter, and stepped over to him to do it. Murray threw his head up in the air and his little feet went jigging all over the place. Dave grabbed a hold of the lead rope so Murray couldn’t rip free, and did something — I didn’t really catch it — that resulted in Murray uneasily but quietly standing between Dave and the wall, still tied. A minute later, Dave changed the halter out just fine.

I put Murray’s boots on, and Dave made the rhetorical question, “This horse has problems with confinement, doesn’t he?” I agreed and elaborated — does better outside than inside, doesn’t do well with pressure, etc. We moved outside to do some work. He talked about Murray’s wide eye and upper eyelid, and commented that since Dave first showed up the upper eyelid had disappeared but Murray still wasn’t “relaxed”.

I don’t recall exactly what Dave did first, but he started by explaining to me that he was going to “do a lot of things” to get Murray to move his feet a lot. In my mind I was like “but I want him to move his feet LESS not more”. But Dave continued to explain that it was about teaching Murray to keep his feet and body within a rectangle that we prescribe. For Murray the rectangle is pretty big, but it still needs to be there. When Murray got out of the rectangle, Dave just “got in his way a bit” to put him back in the rectangle. Getting in his way meant waving the lead rope at him or flagging the whip in the area Dave didn’t want Murray in. One time, when Murray insisted on coming forward even though he hadn’t been asked, Dave waved the lead rope hard enough to get the knots moving on the halter on Murray’s face. Murray took a step back, and Dave immediately stopped.


reward: grain on the bobcat floor

We talked while he did everything. A major thing that I don’t get about horsemanship of this style is what the “reward” is. You wave your whip at your horse, and if he does a thing you stop waving it. But what if he doesn’t do the thing? Then you start punishing him for not doing the thing?

The reward, Dave said, is being left alone/ignored. It still doesn’t make sense to me. But there my horse was, standing quietly and still, perfectly happy to be near us but being left alone. Dave said it was just like clicker training, but there’s no click. And you have to pick your criteria and set the learner up for success. Dave went back to the example of when he’d touched Murray earlier. A lot happened when he walked up to Murray — his feet got skittery, he tried to run away, and he put his head up in the air. All of those were contrary to the goal of getting the halter on. What was Dave’s first priority there? I guessed getting Murray’s feet to be still. Dave said no, just touching the horse was his priority. As long as Murray showed some sign of accepting the touching without fighting it (in this case, I think he put his head down just the tiniest bit? or maybe strained less?), then Dave backed off and stopped trying to touch him.

The learning paradigm is the same as it always is (ABCs). You do a thing — wave a whip, kick with your heel, give a cue — that’s the antecedent. That’s followed by a behavior. If it’s the right behavior, you stop doing the thing. There’s the consequence. If it’s not the right behavior, you keep doing the thing until you get an effort close to the right behavior. Dave just put it together in this pressure-release system in such a way that the horse had a lot of success because he rewarded tiny efforts at first, and had a good concept of how those efforts should add up to a behavior. He also emphasized that when this horse doesn’t do the behavior he doesn’t need more pressure, he needs more time.


needs more time is an idea I’m familiar with….

We also talked about general horse behavior. Who’s the boss? The horse leading the group. Great, so what if someone else tries to get in front of the boss? She/he gets in their way. Right, so all you have to do is get in his way a little bit. And sometimes you have to follow through, but if you’re consistent, that isn’t often.

Dave waved his whip at Murray in different ways to get Murray to move away from it. He could move Murray’s hind end and shoulders independently, which was pretty impressive. And then he put the whip against Murray’s body, which Murray was pretty uncomfortable with at first. But it was a great demonstration of the principle.

First, when Dave approached Murray’s body with the tail of the whip, Murray stepped away. Dave kept the whip moving toward Murray’s body in a parallel type of way until Murray stood still and let Dave touch his body with the whip. Dave took the whip off. Next, Dave did it again. This time, Murray immediately let Dave touch him with the whip but also leaned into the whip a little bit. Dave didn’t take the whip off until Murray was standing upright and not leaning on the whip. Dave rubbed the whip around on Murray’s withers a bit. Then Dave did the same thing on the other side.

Murray’s leaning into the whip was so subtle. I didn’t even see it. And Dave was like “The whites of his eyes are gone, but he still hasn’t sighed yet, has he?” At one point, Dave moved each of Murray’s hind feet just by looking at them. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this seem like black magic.


I trained my horse to wait at the mounting block, which is almost like magic

Eventually, it was my turn to lead my horse again. We started with Murray and I standing with about 5 feet of rope between us, and Dave told me to walk him up the path a little ways. I stepped backward and started walking (backward, so I could see Murray). Murray’s head jerked up and his got all upside down as he started walking. Dave paused me and asked me what had happened, and what I did to ask Murray to “go”. He had me hold my end of the rope and demonstrated my version of “let’s go” and his version of “let’s go”. His version was quiet and smooth. He told me to use my whole arm to smooth out the transition, and to lift my hand a little to indicate to Murray “pay attention, something is happening, let’s go.” The same thing with “stop” — lift the hand to let Murray know that he needs to come back to planet Nicole because I’m about to stop.

As we stood and talked about that a bit, Murray came in a little closer to me than Dave wanted. And then he started yawning. Like huge, ridiculous, clown-horse yawns that I have seen this horse do maybe a handful of times ever. Dave was like “he’s much more comfortable with you than me. He can understand me, but he prefers you.” Which was a tiny bit of salve on my wounded horse-owner-ego at that point.


this one time he yawned during a massage….

During this chat, Murray reached down and started eating grass. I popped his head up, and Dave pointed out another mistake I was making. Sometimes you need to punish a horse. But in this case, Murray was doing what he wanted because I hadn’t told him what to do — walk with me, or stand with me. I’d stopped getting his attention. So the next time he put his head down to graze I asked him to walk a few steps with me and stand in his box again.

At the end of our session, Dave ground tied Murray and talked about how Murray should respect the lead rope on the ground as much as he does the cross ties (haha, joke’s on him, he respects them the same!) or a straight tie. Murray stood right there, totally still. Then Dave instructed me to walk parallel to Murray and take his front boots off, and Dave would do the same on the other side. Of course, Murray immediately backed up like “woah what the hell are you people doing to me”. Dave didn’t get angry or big or harsh or annoyed. He just took the lead rope back up in his hand and invited Murray to walk back forward into the rectangle, then dropped the lead rope again. Then we approached to take the boots off, and my horse stood like a ground tied rock.

Dave walked us back to the pasture and helped me “teach” Murray to turn around at the gate for me so I don’t have to go into a muddy pasture. It wasn’t perfect and it took 3 tries. Dave then told me that while Murray was standing there at the gate, I should leave first. It was a good sign that Murray wanted to be with us, but we needed to be the ones to end the game.


byeeee, felicia….

There was so much to digest here. So many things I skipped over — I didn’t even get to the leg yielding and side passing stuff we worked on, or changing sides and speeds while walking. It was all to teach Murray about respect of space, and teach me how to “get in his way” correctly while showing Murray the right thing to do.

Two huge standouts were pressure and punishment. It’s like since Dave talked to me about those things, I can see all the ways that my use of those two tools left Murray confused in the past.

Murray doesn’t know how to handle pressure. I know that, I’ve known that for a long time. Trainer J identified that at our first vet visit. Dave figured it out within a few minutes of watching my horse. I thought that because Murray had never been taught how to handle pressure that this type of pressure-release training wouldn’t work for him. But in a way it’s perfect for him (if done perfectly), because it shows him that there’s an escape from pressure (one that does not involve running the fuck away).

All of those times I was going around and around and around in circles in the barn aisle trying to get my horse to let me do his girth up? He was trying to escape pressure (that part I knew already, I’m not totally incompetent as a behaviorist!). And in response I either added pressure (jam the girth up quickly), added punishment, or both. Until we started clicker training, I never taught him that there was an “out” from that pressure. The “out” was standing still. Because once he stood still, I never took the pressure — the girth — back away from him. I usually just did the girth up. Absolutely, some of the pressure in this system was coming from Murray internally. But that was still pressure he didn’t know how to deal with.


lol who is punishing who here?

Punishment is intrinsically linked with pressure, because punishment is a pressure. I figured out a while back that punishing horses while riding was pointless (and mostly seemed to reflect me having a temper tantrum). But on the ground, I would still punish him for things he did without guiding him to a better behavior. When he walked too close to me, I would smack him back: just “DON’T walk on top of me”, but no guidance as to where he should walk. When he wouldn’t back up when I asked him to with a light halter pressure, I’d go straight to jerking on his halter. Sure, they are both cues for backing up, but one is much bigger and more punishing.

And these are both things that I already knew, but didn’t do consistently, for some reason. Like, sometimes I did them. And sometimes I didn’t.

Dave told me to watch a lot of horses and riders for my homework. Watch people handling horses and see what’s working and what’s not working. Some of what I do works, and he doesn’t want me to throw that stuff away. But he does want all of the stuff I do to become more effective, and more consistent.

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word noodles

This summer, I’ve been teaching a couple of lessons each week to the student I have been tutoring for the last two years. (We started with the tutoring relationship, but she has recently decided she wants riding lessons and since she’s a total beginner, we’re doing okay.)

It’s fun — I get to try out all these teaching ideas on a kid with whom I have a pretty good teaching relationship already (she trusts me, and I know how she learns). There are some things that I’ve always wondered about with the way we teach riding.

toddler riding purpose-bred horse — see how she steers with both hands?!

For example, why do we always teach people to turn a horse by pulling their nose around when as soon as you get moving faster than a walk (and sometimes not even then), yanking the nose around becomes a markedly ineffective way to turn them? So I taught the kid to turn a horse like she’s steering a bike — point her chest in the direction she wants to go, and make both hands move evenly. I thought this would give her a passing familiarity with pressure on the outside rein during turning and make the idea of pushing a horse over with the outside rein and outside leg a bit easier to swallow when we got to it. It was only moderately successful. It seems that turn-by-pulling-their-nose-in-that-direction is a behavior that just kinda comes pre-installed on humans.

That’s okay. We can uninstall it. I think.

I’ve also had a chance to try out Mary-Wanless style suggestions to the kid. She has the typical-beginner problem of her hands and elbows floating up, up, up as she rides. So a couple of rides ago when we were at the halt I put my fingertips under her fists and pushed up, asking her to resist my push. She pushed back down and boom! Low hands. Now when I see her hands floating up I can just say “resist my push on your hands” and they go right back down — and usually stay there. Prior to trying that I’d told her all kinds of things — let your knuckles touch his withers, push your hands down, don’t let your hands float up, etc. etc. — and gotten little/no response. It’s extra neat to see something that has such an immediate and useful effect.


she’s a biomechanics savant >< — the kid makes me laugh

Another fun thing I’ve been doing is having her recap our last lesson to me at the beginning of the next one. It makes her think about what we’ve been working on lately, and tells me what she’s got in her head that will stick around for this lesson.

I have also tried to be really precise and specific in my language when teaching. I know that horse people use a lot of jargon that doesn’t translate immediately, but we also say things that just straight up don’t make sense. From a horse-person perspective or not! Some of it is metaphor (making a horse “round” or “bouncy”, getting a horse “off the leg” or “on the aids”), because we don’t necessarily have a word in English that describes what we’re talking about. Some of it is just downright lazy or imprecise language.

And that’s exactly where I found myself when I was trying to teach my kid to push a horse out on a circle as he spiraled in over his left shoulder. She kept trying to pull his nose to the outside, and as a result his shoulder fell in more. So they trotted and trotted in a wayward and disorganized fashion, and I hear myself saying such meaningless phrases as “really hold that outside rein” (I am holding it, Nicole, it’s in my hand) and “take a hold of his mouth” (with what, exactly?) and “push him to that outside rein” (the outside rein is in my hand, how can I push a horse there?).

just say NO to outside reins

I said all these things that I knew the kid didn’t understand, but they were what I would do if I were riding the lesson horse. What I wanted her to do was prop his shoulders up underneath him, get his left hind leg under his body and pushing to the right rein, and make the circle bigger. But she doesn’t know how to do any of that. Yet she still needed to regain control over the size of the circle. And in response, I apparently resorted to meaningless platitudes that accomplished nothing.

We paused and I regrouped in my mind. What did I mean by saying those things?

It meant I had to back up a couple of steps and admit to my poor student that I’d been teaching her a short cut all along. Instead of steering her horse with the reins, I now wanted her to steer with her legs. I want the reins to have some tension in them — yes, tension is what I taught you stops a horse. That’s also true. But there’s a level of tension you can have that lets you communicate with the horse’s mouth through the bit but doesn’t totally stop them — that’s the amount of tension you want. Yes, it’s not easy. No, you can do it. Yes, I am going to make you.

We did end on a (ever so) slightly larger circle going to the left, but at least my kid had reins that were a more appropriate length and had learned how to push her leg into the side of a horse to steer. It’s going better this week as we focus more on leg steering.

The lesson for me is that I’m not immune to meaningless horse-training words, and I need to stay vigilant about my vocabularian precision!

shake it off

When Kate came up and rode Murray, she described him as trying to “shake off” the aids. When she put her leg into him, he wiggled or squirmed or maybe even kicked out, but didn’t necessarily go forward. Which is the whole point of putting the leg on in the first place. Megan pointed out that sometimes in response to leg Murray just pushes his ribs back into the leg — which is something I have felt before, but never had anyone identify it to me so I didn’t know if I was being crazy. These are such perfect descriptions of my horse’s behavior, though. He’s totally not being malicious. He’s just problem solving in a (for me) unproductive way.


no Kate, NO, you may NOT put your leg on me, nooooooooooo

In the last two months or so I’ve worked hard on pushing through those instinctive responses of Murray to just flick me off when I go to apply aids. It means pushing through my own instincts too. Because when Murray starts to get a little wiggly or sideways or offer up the wrong response, my go-to is to let up and try again. Which inadvertently tells Murray that he should repeat that behavior, because it resulted in a release of the pressure. So instead of letting up I have to keep my leg on and wait for the right response, or something resembling the right response, before I let go of the aid.

Even though he’s  learning rapidly and incredibly well lately, it’s still in Murray’s nature to shake off an aid he’s not totally in favor of.


“problem solving”

For example, sitting through the canter aid, which Kate suggested would help Murray understand the distinction between leg = bigger trot and leg = canter. Though I only use one leg for the latter and both for the former, sometimes it’s easier to canter rather than trot big. So this should help clarify that. Murray’s thoughts on sit-sit-canter range from THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE to ugh fine. We’ve been getting less offended flailing and more acceptance though. The other thing I noticed is that my first attempts at this lost all of the bear down, and I inverted in the middle and arched my back through the aid and transition. If I’m inverted through the transition, I can’t imagine that it’s easy for Murray to be round through it. So I focused on bearing down and shortening my front line through the transition, and it did seem to improve things.

not like this. this is not bearing down.

Then there’s connecting to the left rein. He’s always lacked connection to the left rein, as we both tend to just rely on the right rein for… most things. Megan directed me to really keep that left rein connection when it’s on the outside and push Murray over into it with my right leg. And in response, a couple of times Murray has flicked his head to the outside, turned left, or just stopped and gone backward. Which is, sorry kiddo, not what we’re looking for.

And then I caught myself doing something SO MURRAYish it was embarrassing. Though it’s somewhat torturous to do it, I’ve been forcing myself to improve the connection and march at the walk  before I move on to the trot. It doesn’t have to get perfect during the warm up, but it does have to move toward being more marching and through than when we started. A lot of this means finding out where Murray wants to start in the connection, and adding a bit of leg for more march and connection, and asking for a bit more roundness, having him bend properly instead of rotating around his inside front leg, then adding a bit more march and connection, etc. And after I added leg and felt Murray push into the bridle a bit more, I did something with my hands to shake him off the contact. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but that’s hardly important. No wonder this horse doesn’t want to take or trust the contact — if I’m not thinking about it, I might actually tell him to not do the right thing. Oops.

oh hey, apparently a year ago i briefly learned that short reins make my horse look way better. i clearly promptly forgot it.

Yet another example of how I am, truly, just like this horse.

So lots of things to focus on, and lots of dedicated practice needed for our rides. But it’s getting a little better, bit by bit. And once I stop accidentally shaking my horse off the aids, it will probably get better a bit faster!

feet light, twist right, thighs tight: biomechanics clinic with Alexis MV (part 2!)

Where left off yesterday okay fine Wednesday, Alexis had introduced to me the concept of bearing down (becoming shorter and wider), keeping my feet light by stabilizing my post through my entire leg, and posting very purposefully. This was just the beginning of the biomechanics train.

Alexis asked to see Murray and I canter, and so we cantered a bit. It wasn’t the worst canter, but it wasn’t the best canter either. Pretty medium, which is a good thing to show a clinician. Alexis immediately honed in on the rogue flapping of my left side. My left hand continually drifted out to the left, and my left knee and thigh were flapping away from the saddle in a way that my right leg wasn’t. Earlier in the day Alexis had mentioned to a couple of riders that they should be mindful of keeping their shirt zipper/buttons centered over the horse’s withers. In my case, this wouldn’t be enough.

hahahaha my handssss

Alexis wanted to re-orient the twist of my body, which she thought would help address several of my problems at once.  First, she had me place my hands on my torso. I put my left hand across my belly pointing to the right, and my right hand across my back pointing to the left. Palms faced inward, touching my shirt. Then Alexis told me to twist to the left and drag my hands across my body as I did so.  It took a bit of coordinating on my part, but I did it. Alexis was like “I suspect that’s the position your body is used to being in, right?” It was pretty easy so I’m guessing yeah, it is.

Then, Alexis had me reverse my hands and the direction. I put my right hand across the front and my left hand across the back, and twisted to the right. Alexis said “that way should feel harder, but it’s what I want you to emulate as you ride.” I practiced twisting right and dragging my hands across my skin. I could feel the twisting all the way along my inner thigh, down into my knee.

Next, Alexis took a hold of my left elbow and pulled it gently away from my body, telling me to resist the pull.  I pulled my elbow back in, and Alexis told me to recruit the large muscles in my seat instead of just the muscles of my arms. Luckily for me, I already had done that a little. I wasn’t just pinching my elbow back in, but I was pushing my seat down into the saddle to keep that elbow in. (Writing this out, I know now what I need to focus on for my next ride!)

left hand now good, right hand now rogue

So out I went again, this time focusing on twisting right and keeping my rogue left hand in. As I trotted around, Alexis kept reminding me of the biomechanics fixes she wanted me to implement: twist right, thighs tight, feet light. Then: post slowly, like a hydraulic pump, like you’re moving through resistance going up and going down. It was hard getting these all to work at the same time. Mostly I would twist right and thighs tight, and then I’d realize that I was jamming my feet down into the stirrups again and needed to keep my feet light.  But with constant reminders, I was able to put it together for more than a few strides at a time.

And when I did it was SO COOL. Because my horse stopped falling out over his right shoulder, and he kept pushing into the bridle. At one point Alexis even said “he looks like he’s pretty willing to put his nose wherever the end of your reins are, so why not shorten those a little?” I was like “Oh yeah I have the worst reins in the world,” to which Alexis responded “well don’t blame the reins…”

left hand still being crazy, but horse not looking too bad!

We picked up the canter and I kept twisting right, thigh-ing tight, and feet-ing light. I also tried to bear down and add tone to the upper part of my abs.  Apparently this resulted in me leaning back like woah and probably fucking with the canter mechanic a bit, which I did not realize until I saw the pictures. But at the time, it felt like my horse was on wheels. Like seriously, the canter ceased to be a three-beat gait and just became this incredible, smooth, levitation-y phenomenon.

(I have not been able to re-acquire that feeling, without Alexis though. So there’s that.)

cute horse walking before the sitting trot wordvomitmayhem begins

And then came the part of the day that absolutely blew my mind. YES EVEN MORE. During lunch, Alexis talked about the mechanics of each gait and commented that the bouncing that most people experience in the sitting trot is in the down phase of the trot, not the up phase. The body is good at following the saddle upward, because it’s being physically pushed up by the saddle, but going down we fail to follow the saddle down accurately.

Of course I was like “wait how?” Because gravity is a thing. And it acts upon all of us. So why do we suck so much at falling into a saddle?

Alexis explained that one of the common errors in riding is to lock the joints and “relax” the muscles. (Relax is one of her least favourite instructional words! I scream it at Murray a lot shhhhhh.) Instead, riders should tone the muscles and let the joints flex freely. I don’t remember why. Mary Wanless is bound to have written about this in one of her many books, I just don’t have the knowledge or a book on hand to tell you.

So after we cantered, Alexis asked if I wanted to work a little on sitting trot. I was like “Oh, well I can’t sit the trot so I guess we will have to canter again!”

Alexis was not having it.

bad nicole loses her shoulders-hip-heel alignment when she tries to sit the trot, but at least her spine is straight!

Alexis suggested walking and picking up the sitting trot for a little and then walking or posting again. “Let’s do some reps,” she said. Ow, I said.

Alexis told me to keep my spine neutral and keep bearing down. I needed to keep my thighs on and feet light and not try to absorb the shock by wobbling my spine or core (or neck or head). Alexis said a lot of things as I was trotting around and I don’t remember almost any of them except “the spine should be like a jackhammer going up and down…. welcome to the bottom of the saddle!!”

After that rep Alexis asked “what part of that resonated with you?” and I was like “honestly the only thing I remember is the jackhammer spine thing.” I don’t remember how it all felt, but the part that Alexis said was the most right, I remember feeling my seat bones pounding into the bottom of the saddle.  I always thought that sitting trot should all swoosh-swoosh-swoosh like cross country skiing.  Instead, the mechanic Alexis wanted me to achieve was bam-bam-bam with every stride. The saddle did feel deeper, though I’m not sure how.

still bouncing, but not as much bounce as before!
(now that I look at this, I think Alexis may also have had me pull my left elbow back but don’t remember any more)

If it seems like we didn’t focus on the horse at all in this clinic, it’s because we didn’t. The point of the clinic wasn’t dressage lessons, it was to fix rider biomechanics. In light of all that though, I’ll note that I am super proud of Murray for being such a growned up boy and letting a stranger touch him.  I’m also super proud that he mostly kept his head down and just worked during our lesson, instead of fighting me over silly shit.

Since the clinic I’ve been working on this stuff non stop. I’m not in as much pain as before, which probably means both that I am assimilating some of this and getting stronger and not doing it as much as I should be (or was during my lesson). But I am slowly rebuilding my bass line. Which means that one day soon I’ll hopefully be able to do something other than go in straight lines and circles again!

hiatus benefits

Winter arrived late this year, or perhaps it returned from a temporary hiatus to Hawaii, and about five weeks ago it suddenly became frigidly cold and then started pouring. Which is normal winter weather but after days approaching 70 felt like a really nasty trick by mother nature.  This coincided with ramping Murray back up into work and trying to get fit for the first show we could possibly make it to this year, April Fresno. (A show which is horribly, terribly coincidental with Rolex Kentucky 3DE,  so…. I will be following the live tweeting I guess?)  This has kinda made our hiatus longer than expected, but not terribly so; and I’m trying to put the work in regardless.

I expected Murray to be a) super unfit and b) really unhappy with the getting-back-to-work situation. But I’ve been shocked really very pleasantly surprised.  He’s happy to come to work, and pretty happy to listen t me during work. I mean, he’s still Murray. He still bucks and screams and exorcises the bad feelings by shooting them out of his butt.  But when he’s not doing that, he’s working.  Even better, we’re working together.

And boy-o is way stronger and more muscular than before, especially through his topline. To which I can hear you saying “woah woah woah now Nicole, you let your horse languish in a stall and pasture for 20 weeks and he got more topline? now I know you’re smoking the ganja”, but I’m not. I swear. Sure, he’s a little huskaroo right now. But I found a conditioning program (by the fabulous Jec Ballou) pretty early on that emphasized walking, stretches, and calisthenic exercises (poles) to help a horse keep topline and fitness during downtime. And I did it. Religiously Scientifically. I have walked my horse over so many freaking poles this year, probably more than in the first four years we were together combined.

he’s put on even more muscle since I took this photo

Oh, and poles. We can do them now. Not like “I can hurl myself in a disorganized and inconsistent fashion at these sticks on the ground and hope it turns out all right oh GOD ITS NOT ALL RIGHT HELP”. More like “I can trot to these poles at a steady pace and if I need to stretch out over them I can push from behind”. This is a horse who chipped into trot poles literally 50% of the time from 2013-2017. Not kidding. And now he trots calmly toward them, and, unless there’s a huge question or some kind of majorly weird thing going on, just trots right through them. WITH HIS HEAD DOWN.


will walk over x-rails for treatz

Murray now has way better longitudinal balance, and his lateral balance is getting there. I worked pretty hard to reward him for walking and trotting around while stretching over his topline, so now it’s something he just offers to me because he knows he gets cookies for it. It’s like the lunging and liberty work doing this unlocked his ability to actually use his back and his abs — both on the ground and under saddle. He trots around in a halter (on a lunge or at liberty) with his head down, stretching over his back now. It’s the best trick ever!  (I think this is part of what helped him with the trot poles, as he can problem solve without needing to tighten his back line and tense up.)

And his tail grew. I know it’s a big thing but I’ve lamented his thin and somewhat sad tail for a while now. I vowed not to bang it and to be very careful brushing it while he was on stall rest so that when we got back to work I’d have this big reveal of LOOK MAGNIFICENT TAIL!  A new pasture buddy foiled that plan by chewing half of it off at his hocks in December, and then the rest of it got so long that Murray started stepping on it and pulling it out in his stall.  So I banged it and gave him some light layers, and it still looks thicker and fuller than before, if a titch shorter than I might like.


also: less spooky and not afraid of strange heavy machinery any more

It’s hard to enumerate the benefits we reaped over our 4.5 month break. I expected to have a long uphill climb after taking the time off, but it’s just… not the case. Murray came back sounder, smarter, and happier to work, and I learned a lot about riding, training, and how to teach my horse. Which is kinda crazy to think about, because I feel that we were in a pretty good place even before we went on hiatus. Murray had just saved my butt all over Camelot, and we were hammering out some pretty essential riding/training kinks. To be feeling better than that is pretty baller.

Don’t get me wrong — I have also learned (and continue to learn) about some of the (many) fuckups I’ve made in training this horse over the last four years (see above re: can’t do trot poles). But I also feel like this break showed me how reversible they are, and how to avoid making them again in the future. So… if I make more mistakes it’s okay, we’ll just fix them.

It’s good to be feeling good!

pony stuff for mf’in adults: seconds pro app

I take my horse’s fitness seriously. There are a lot of things we can’t change about our horses, but fitness isn’t one of them. There is a lot we can do to help out our equine partner’s fitness, and I’m a firm believer that we should.

I also swam competitively all the way through high school, and one thing we would never be without when swimming was a clock. Workouts were written up on a big whiteboard that we could all see from the edge of the pool, and a huge minute clock with a moving second hand sat next to it.  We hauled ass to get through our 200s and 400s within the allotted time, caught a precious five or ten seconds of rest on the wall, and then did it all again. Over. And over. And over.

I can write out my horse’s fitness workouts, but timing the sets is a much bigger challenge. I no longer ride with a watch for a variety of reasons (not the least of which being that my boyfriend takes it off and hides it under the bed when I’m sleeping because it ticks too loudly), and despite many attempts to the contrary we’ve never managed to keep a clock in the arena for more than a few months.  Plus it’s hard to catch a glimpse at a clock that isn’t a jumbotron as you canter past anyway.

When I started bringing Murray back into work seriously I became even more interested in a proper way to time my rides. My eventing watch only beeps on minute intervals, and that isn’t good enough for me — you still have to keep track of how many have passed and how many you have to go before the next set, which get really difficult when you have complicated sets planned out (for example: walk 2 min, trot 3 min, walk 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min, canter 1 min, trot 2 min — where was I in that set again?). Cell phone alarms definitely didn’t cut it — I have no interest in fumbling with my phone to get one alarm turned off and another set.

Enter: Seconds Pro. (~$4.99)

Interval training is really popular, so I knew there had to be an app out there to solve my problems — something that would let me customize my horsey workouts so that I’d know exactly where I was in the ride and exactly how much time I had left to go. I shopped around a bunch and the internet seemed to agree that Seconds Pro, though pricey, had all the options I could ever want in a pony fitness app.


at left: setting up a workout. at right: what a workout looks like while you’re workin’ and outin’.

Seconds Pro lets you customize your workouts (duh, what’s the point otherwise) and automatically counts its way through the workout after you initiate the timer.  There are different countdown options so you can have your phone tell you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing next in its weird robot voice: Trot Warm Up Left, phone lady tells me. So I trot left.

You can choose left and right splits, so if you want to trot for 4 minutes total and be told when to change directions, the phone lady will do that too! (Or you can have an unobtrusive beeper let you know, your choice.) You can also add pretty colours! I don’t bother. To make your life easy, if you’re interested in doing a bunch of short sets, you can set up one workout and then loop it X number of times — so easy.

so many beeps, so little time

I feel like I’m underselling this app, but it is SERIOUSLY AWESOME.  As you can see from the screen shots, I already started using it for regular rides with the Zookini.  Have you ever trotted a really forward horse who likes to lean into your hands for 2 minutes in each direction when you’re really out of shape? I was begging for those beeps. BUT THEN I STILL HAD TO CANTER FOR 90 SECONDS EACH DIRECTION WTFFFFF.

I was so ambitious. I set just two, 3-minute walk breaks.

I totally took more walk breaks.

Anyway.

I think that Seconds Pro is going to be an awesome tool for horsey and human fitness — those trot sets are totally going to happen, and are actually going to be as long as they are supposed to be.

Oh gawd what have I done to myself.

operationalize

Shortly after January’s Spiral of Nag ride, I did what any confused amateur would do: I scheduled a lesson with my trainer, and complained to my friends.

This is me, asking myself about watermark.i was really looking for the vultures singing “that’s what friends are fooooor” but this one will do just fine

To recap: I discovered that my horse does not reliably trot forward when I cue him to do so. Depending on the day and where we’re at in the ride — warming up, going good, at the end of the ride, feeling super lazy — I get correct responses between, probably, 30% and 85% of the time. But other horses I ride can trot on cue.  Like, all of them. All of the time.

So the goal of my lesson was to help me become super aware and super accountable for the trot transitions. I told B to be extra critical of what I was doing with my body so that I could give the same cue every time and help Murray really understand the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain that I wanted.

Unfortunately, the lesson was a little doomed from the start. Murray had slipped out of his blanket at some point overnight, and the weather was unexpectedly frigid.  Not unexpected for the season, but shocking given the 70* days and near-50* nights we’d been experiencing.  So Murray was cold, tense, and cranky when I got to him.

not happy, nicole!

Murray and I demonstrated our weaknesses very quickly. B called me out immediately for throwing my body around when Murray didn’t step into the trot immediately.  It turns out that I have zero patience.  If Murray didn’t show some upswing in power within a step of me squeezing him with my legs, I would throw away the contact, pitch my body forward, and lift my seat.

B coached me through increasing the ask (more leg pressure) without flailing — giving a stronger squeeze or even a bit of a boot — while sitting tall, keeping my hands steady, and sitting in the saddle.  Which is… embarrassingly hard for me.

Murray was not a fan of this. He was happy to trot off on his own schedule, but doing so when I asked was not really working for him.

We made good progress in the lesson, but it got a lot uglier before that.  B kept encouraging me to stay tall, and quietly urge Murray to go forward, without letting him use balking or ducking behind the contact or fishtailing around to evade the work. I had lots of homework from the lesson.

evasions: we have them

On the friend front, Kate was an awesome, sympathetic, and encouraging ear. Sure, my horse doesn’t have a reliable walk-trot transition, which is something that much greener and much younger horses have long mastered, but now that I’d identified the problem, wasn’t this the perfect time to work on it?

Kate suggested that I operationalize what I wanted Murray to do.  What exactly is the cue? What exactly is the behavior I am looking for in response? Do I want to squeeze Murray for ten seconds and have him trot off at some point in the next ten steps?  Or do I want to brush my calves against his side and have him trot off immediately?

She suggested that for his current level of training (or like, whatever it is we’ll call it that I’ve been doing with Murray for the last four years) I make my cue a squeeze of 1-3 seconds and expect a response within 3 steps.  It’s not too extreme, but it is reasonable for the level of work that we’re trying to do this year.

Operationalizing the behavior was amazingly helpful. It gave me a quantifiable target for what I wanted to get out of Murray, and something I can count to see how close we are to getting there.  It’s impossible not to struggle with observational bias when the improvement or behavior I’m looking for is subjective — what is “better” anyway?  But when I can count mississippis and steps, then I can tell exactly how much progress we’ve made and how far we need to go.

Murray, for his part, remains the extra creature he’s wont to be.