trash human: activate

I had a spectacularly bad ride a few Wednesdays ago. I really set myself up for failure by planning a lesson the day I got back from five days out of town (with an extra long and stressful drive the night before because of a snowstorm blowing through), less than 24 hours after Speedy had a dental and his annual vaccines.

I know Speedy gets punky and sore after vaccines, and I am aware that five days off isn’t a great setup for a good lesson, and I could tell in the moment that it wasn’t going well. Yet when Speedy told me “I can’t” over and over in the lesson, I bullied him rather than listen to him. Which is a direct route to feeling like peak trash.

Something alarming happened in the pasture during lunch, so Speedy brought a snack with him to observe the happenings.

I don’t have a lot of straight up Bad Rides these days. Even if we have a hard ride or aren’t on the same page or spend a long time struggling with an exercise, we almost always find some good in it and end on an improved note. This lesson ended with sobbing and lunging on a decidedly not improved note.

Among the things I adore about Speedy is that no matter how rough our ride is, he is always cuddly and sociable in his stall, and doesn’t seem to take it personally. But this go around…. he wasn’t quite as forgiving. The day after my Trash Human performance, Speedy was so sore and miserable that I cancelled my lesson and gave him 250mg of bute. The next day he was fine, but I just turned him out and played liberty games with him in the arena instead of pushing it.

The new barn also has cows, which Speedy love. Until one of them looks like it’s trying to die in the fence. He does not love that.

(Which, side quest, I’ve never personally managed a horse who had such a serious reaction to vaccines before! When I got to the barn Speedy looked dull, and was crankily pawing at his alfalfa and then rapidly snatching bites of whatever he pawed up. At first I thought he might be colicking, because this horse not eating alfalfa is a major red flag. But I quickly realized he was uncomfortable lowering his head all the way to the ground to eat, so put his hay up in a net and gave him bute at the advice of my barn manager, and a mashy-grainy water bucket to ensure good hydration. But I was pretty worried there for a second.)

Finally on Saturday, eight days since any kind of consistent or quality work with one shit ride speckled in the middle, we got back to it. My goal for the ride was just to keep it mellow but see if I could get him moving over his back and stretching into the connection a bit. I swung up on Speedy, gave him his traditional standing-at-the-mounting-block treat and he promptly went full pony on me, taking charge of the situation by trotting away from the mounting block. He was positively buzzing during the ride, bouncing off a tiny pony from the other lesson program, pushing his neck back against me, and only very halfheartedly listening to my efforts to chill or woah.

I built a boot organizer for the barn to go under this window so we could declutter our tack room! I love it, such a nice way to use a weird space and keep my boots and helmet out of my trunk.

For my next few rides, Speedy was distinctly not buying what I was selling. He’s not automatically the most “submissive” guy anyway, but more often than not he’s willing to try for me. But he fully reverted back to “I go with my head in the air, the steering is marginal, and I have exactly two speeds: fast and faster.” It got better through the week during my lessons with TrJ, but even now — two weeks later — I’ve still not clawed my way back into Speedy’s good graces entirely. It’s like we erased months of progress and are back where we were well before Christmas, which is such an insane bummer because after Christmas we had some of our most amazing flat and jump lessons ever.

It’s possibly more than just my trash human riding a few weeks ago. TrJ’s whole program moved facilities at the beginning of February and we’re right in the thick of winter training right now. And, well, he’s a horse. TrJ has been saying that an awful lot lately, to all of us. “He’s a horse, he’s gonna do horse things.”

Teefies v. teefies with Hazel’s new shark toy.

But after basically a straight year of what felt like nothing but a magnificent rocketship to the sky of progress, this setback smarts.

With a bit of distance from the event, it’s fine. It’s…. fine. It’sfineit’sfineit’sFINE. I would obviously rather not have massive setbacks with my horse or be an asshole to him. But I’m a human and I’m going to make stupid mistakes, and I’d rather make these discoveries early and at home, when I have plenty of time, space, and resources to come back from them.

So… onward and hopefully upward from here. I know a few more things now about how not to be a trash human to my horse and how much I need to baby him during vaccine week. Plus, building trust is a process and rebuilding is part of that process too.

Also I’m teaching Speedy to stationary target at this duct-tape cross on the wall and his cue is “let us pray”. I kill myself, really.

(Funny enough, it looks like the last time I was an awful human being to my horse [big caveat there since I’m an awful human being to other humans all the time] was right after he was vaccinated last Fall. A pattern. Hmm.)

on progress

I had…. a ride with Speedy today.

It wasn’t bad, at all. But it wasn’t great either. We worked on something hard for him (alignment) and we made progress. But I had a lot more moments of “no, not that” than I like, which made it feel like not-fun.

After our warmup, Speedy was trailing his haunches to the left in both directions, and didn’t really want to bring his outside front foot around in either direction either. When we’d get some nice bend he’d fall to the inside of whatever track we were on, and I found myself wanting to pull on the outside rein to get him back over there.

Going right, we did alright getting him a little more even and bringing his left hind back in line with his body. Going left, Speedy wasn’t really sure he could realign his body. I had to do a fair bit of bumping with both legs — inside leg to ask him to bend, outside leg to keep the shoulder from bulging too much, inside leg back to push the haunches out. To almost every leg aid, Speedy responded with “are you sure I couldn’t just trot instead?” And they were pretty nice trot transitions! But sadly, a nice trot transition wasn’t what I was after.

We did get there and then it felt awesome. Nice alignment at the walk, nice alignment at the trot. We had a quick canter, a couple of really nice transitions, and I called it quits.

I’m definitely going to be using these for a while

While I was pretty happy with how good things felt toward the end of our ride, I found myself wondering when we would get past the looooong negotiations about Speedy aligning his body (although, lawl, reading through my most recent post I can clearly see that this discussion has already shortened considerably). When would alignment be something I could just quietly correct and Speedy would be like “oh yeah, I am supposed to hold my body like that”?

After the rest of the day to marinate on this ride, I realized what progress this ride actually represented from Speedy. In February, I’m not sure moving his haunches independently of his shoulders was even on Speedy’s radar. (In January, we didn’t have alignment problems because Speedy was stiff as a board, hah!) In March, we did “shoulder-in” in lessons but it was a mess of us falling off the wall without any bend through Speedy’s ribcage. In April, asking Speedy to respond to my left leg and then my right leg would have sent him into a fit of nose-in-the-air-zipping. Even in August, trying to address the alignment was an invitation for a stabby, annoyed trot and bulging underneck. And just last month, if I’d asked Speedy to move his shoulders and haunches that many times but insisted he not trot, he would have puffed up against me and balked.

cantering through water is another thing we need to do some homework on this winter

Sometimes I swear he fills his body with air and tones up all his muscles to literally push my aids away from his body and ignore them better. But today, he was soft. Confused, but soft. And after a little bit of insisting that he had to walk and bring his left hind under his body and not stick his right front to the ground and keep walking forward, we managed to do all of those things.

It doesn’t feel the same as progress with Murray, and it doesn’t feel the same as progress in our jump lessons or out on cross country (Murray tolerated drilling/collecting reps on something new way better than Speedy does). But it is absolutely progress, and it’s probably more important than jumping a bigger table or oxer, or coursing with more height.

And importantly for me — and I will fully admit I don’t really have a plan here just yet — is going to be how I handle this progress tomorrow in our ride. I want to avoid bullying Speedy about it, but I also want to get us both to a place where we can find that alignment again and start reinforcing that neural pathway.

We can both be a bit funny about learning.

You know how sometimes you’ll come up against something different or weird in a ride, and then hours or later the solution or best response to that problem smacks you right in the head (often when showering)? I’m definitely deep in one of those phases right now. It happens to me…. daily. Though this time it didn’t work out that way — this time, I got to reflect on something for hours and realize I got a pretty cool response in the moment!

So this is my note to future-Nicole to recognize those moments and remember: there was a time when Speedy couldn’t do shoulder-in and couldn’t align his body tracking left (and there was a time when Speedy couldn’t do much more than run around with his nose in the air!). But you’re probably past that now, and you’ll get past whatever seemingly insurmountable wall you’re staring up at right now too.

speedy learn-er-ing

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.

Also, this little weasel is turning into the adventure buddy I didn’t know I needed.

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.

I have so much riding strength to catch up on to keep up with this nugget. Also lolling at his butt dimple. Gotta watch the weight on this one.

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 love that he can just babysit himself for a few minutes on a stranger’s property.

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.

I used to think it was absurd to ride with your dog, but here we are. Speedy and Hazel both love it. Hazel thinks it’s the best game and just loves being in the same “room” as me. Speedy loves trying to catch Hazel and trying to boop her while she’s distracted. Several times during this ride he chose to “chase” Hazel as his treat after a click. I thought it was a great opportunity to work on working with distractions.

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.

I got myself some literal gold stars for Speedy’s journal, but at this rate I’ll need to put one on every ride.

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.)

potato riding quality hopefully soon to be upgraded — to french fry, maybe?

clicking past creative constipation

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.

expert red dirt sampler

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.

a few rides later during our walk warmup Speedy marched right over to the mounting block, lined himself up, and stopped like this. it was pretty perfect, and I obviously gave him a treat for his immense cleverness.

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.

“OMG look I can put my face on it”

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.

When your own pony curiosity gets the better of you

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.

remedial learner

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 (curse past 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.

“wait did you say left or right?”

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?

accurate representation of Speedy’s thoughts on picking up feet

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.

you see, I know he knows how to learn because he has now repeatedly snuck out under his stall guard to go eat Bridget’s alfalfa when unattended

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.

throwback to sunshiney trail rides

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.

highs in the 30s last week was the perfect excuse to fulfill my childhood dream of giving my horse lukewarm mash

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.

when in doubt (due to crane) just go fast and jump big, and don’t forget to put nose in air

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.

absurd toys and outfits required for mission x-lax

cooling off

When Murray first decided I first realized that Murray needed to be retired, I was interested in getting a new horse¬†right away. Interested doesn’t even cover it, really. I was desperate. It was like I didn’t know what I would do without a horsey project to call my own. When I went to see that horse back in December (who ultimately didn’t work out) I had spent plenty of time stalking him online and was already imagining what my life would be like with his fabulous show name. I found all of his old sale videos, watched his current sale videos relentlessly, and when he didn’t work out, I was back to scouring the internet, looking for a good deal.


a certain extremely cute pony’s begging behavior is so firmly ingrained that he even begs for treats in the field

It’s a good thing that horse didn’t work out, because the reality is that I didn’t have the money for another horse just then — not the cash up front, and not the cash flow to pay for all the horsey expenses. And I’m still not in the financial or work position where I’d feel comfortable taking on a full-time horse — owned or otherwise.

In January when I posted about my thoughts on future horsey-dom, I had come to terms with the fact that I didn’t really have the money for a new horse yet, but I was still medium-key bummed about it. Sure, pony lessons were fun, but I couldn’t help but think about how much progress I could be making with my new horse in that time. And also heavily window shopping for said horse in the mean time. If a great deal had fallen into my lap in March, I don’t think I would have turned it down.


Murray was never into selfies pre-retirement

More than six months down the line, I’ve no longer got my-own-horse FOMO and I’m very glad I didn’t rush into anything with a new horse. Completely ignoring the money issue — I think we can all take that limitation to its logical conclusion — there are¬†so many things about my current life that make horse ownership impractical. Especially green horse ownership! The glaring issue is the time. All that time I spent driving back and forth to California would not be doing my new (inevitably green) horse any favors. Even when I’m home, the farm isn’t exactly a low-key and undemanding job. I’ve spent more than a few days sitting in the truck or on the tractor for eight hours at a time, doing water runs, prepping fields, checking trees. And those are absolutely not things that I can just ditch to go riding (unlike constantly skipping out on writing up my thesis, lollll).

Also, if I’d bought a horse right after retiring Murray, you bet I would have rushed into it somewhat. Like, sure. I had a list and all that, but I’m also a sucker for a cute face and even more of a sucker for a good price. Emotionally/mentally compromised Nicole is not necessarily logical Nicole — and who knows how much TrJ would have been able to hold me back. That would very possibly have led to me being in a Murray-like position again because I think horses with a lot of “personality” are super funny and adorable. But it could also have led to a not-so-great fit between me and the horse, and then I’d be in the position of trying to sell a young, green horse. Which I know would suck. It absolutely would have led to me being back in the position of riding a green horse and trying to teach a green horse the basics of connection and dressage and jumping and not in the position to grow my skills where Murray and I left off. If I had my own horse, I wouldn’t have the lease on Timer right now.


me with every cute horse I see on the internet: I love you so much and you will be mine

Ultimately, this cooling off period was really good for me. I would never have asked for it at first, but I am so glad it happened. Time really was what I needed to chill out, but having great horses to ride in the interim certainly helped. At this point, I’m completely willing to wait on horse buying — for 6 more months, for a year, for two years — I’m no longer in a rush at all. My new dream situation is to pick up my second horse while maintaining my lease on Timer, so I can keep building my skills on T while new horse settles into the routine and gets with the program.

A few months ago, I was worried that not having my own horse would expedite losing my identity as a rider and someone who loves to learn about and improve my riding. But I’m not worried about that any more. Clearly I’m able to fit riding into my weird and wacky schedule given enough horsey enough flexibility. And even if riding isn’t my seven-day-a-week-all-day-at-the-barn-whenever-I-can-make-it-work hobby obsession of 2014/2015, that doesn’t make me any less able to work hard and grow in the time I¬†do get to spend there. I’d love to get back to riding every day or even multiple horses a day in the future, but it’s just not in the cards right now. And that’s way more okay than I realised back in December.


more idyllic trail rides in my future, please!

academic horse training

When I was in Australia in November, my friends instructed me that I¬†must pick up several copies of Andrew MacLean’s seminal text — Academic Horse Training. The book isn’t available in the US and isn’t exactly easy to get anywhere outside of Australia, or even in Australia. I had to order the book directly from Equestrian Sciences Institute, who delivered them to my godmother’s house, and my god-brother ferried them to Oregon for me on a family vacation.

It was complicated.

The book is pretty hefty though, and I dawdled on cracking it, other than to look at a few pictures, until this week. At this point, I’ve read Academic Horse Training for a half an hour or so each day (um, this new life plan with dedicated reading time is awesome!!) and it’s addictive. It dropped a large number of truth bombs in just the first two chapters. I’m far from done with the book, but there are a couple of these nuggets that really stood out.

On girthiness

Andrew MacLean hypothesized that in the past (like the way past) humans have selected horses for reduced girthiness, because we rely so much on the girth to hold our saddles on, and if you can’t get a saddle on a horse, you can’t perform on it. Some horses never get over their sensitivity to girthing.

Ahem.

freeeeeeeeee you can’t girth meeeeeeeeeee

And at the same time we expect horses to be intensely sensitive to little movements of our leg mere inches away from this place that we ask them to be not sensitive to significant pressure.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense, and it (along with inconsistent signalling) helps to explain why some horses become so dull to the leg aids so quickly. Because every single day before we say “hey, listen to this leg” we first say “hey, ignore what’s going on down here.”

On spooking

One of the theories on the origin of spooking is that by suddenly and unexpectedly changing track, a prey animal can trick a predator and throw it off course. By doing this, they gain a bigger lead over the preadator or scary thing, thus making themselves more likely to survive.

So the better a horse can hide his desire or intention to spook, the more likely he is to survive. Which means that for flighty horses, the ability to make a spook super unexpected is probably literally written into their DNA.

Thus why sometimes my horse (or any horse) will be trotting along and be just fine with something and then EXPLODE out of nowhere in fear of that thing. Because if that “predator” could tell that they were going to change course before they even got there, then the element of surprise and advantage of the sudden course change would be lost. If it’s something not so worrisome, then it might be worth just giving some major side-eye and neck craning to.

So literally the most frustrating, unpredictable, and hard-to-control-and-train spook is the one that is most deeply ingrained in a fearful animal. Great.

On the fear response

The fear response is literally one of the oldest, strongest, most easily reinforced pathways in the brain. And this is especially true for prey species. For horses, one instinctive reaction involving the fear response can undo many months of careful training, and can take many more months of careful, positive associations to smush back down.

This unlocked a ton of thoughts for me — why Murray could be¬†so great in one place, and in another place or after a big spook he just lost it. Why something like clipping was super hit or miss depending on the day, even after I had spent many hours working on it. This also underlined to me even more how important groundwork and developing a strong level of trust and understanding between rider/handler and horse is. Because sometimes I was the thing that stimulated the fear response in Murray, so he didn’t necessarily always know that something I was suggesting would be “okay”.

On bucking

It’s supposed to dislodge big cats. hahahahaha


not as effective as he hoped

I’m still only halfway through the book, but I’ve already recommended it wholeheartedly to several friends. Enough that I’m getting another shipment of books sent my way. I had a few extra copies thrown in there, so if you want your own copy, let me know (nicole g sharpe at gmail)! They should be here within a month, and I’d be happy to send one along to you. They aren’t cheap ($75 plus a little bit for shipping I think), but the book is WELL worth the money.

More nuggets from Academic Horse Training to come. I am absurdly excited to start working with my future horse using the paradigm and framework outlined in this book!!

half halts part 25748

I have not thought about half halts in a while. Which is abnormal for me, since I was utterly obsessed with them for ages.¬† (Okay, there’s apparently almost no blog evidence of this. But I talk about them a lot with my friends.)

I just have bigger problems than half halts these days. Like getting my horse to actually come over his back and push into the bridle.


hay fren pls go to the bridle like this always (or more)

Then in one of our recent lessons, Megan was like “okay so push your horse across the ground! go! bigger canter! bigger!” (we were cantering). I was like geez holy fuck that’s really big and it’s a bit scary.

And then she was like “okay great! really great there! now lift his front end up by accentuating the upswing, without making the canter smaller.”

I struggled with it for quite a few circles, but finally found a balance where I could push my horse OUT and then balance him back UP a few strides later and hold that balance until he was juuust about sick of it, and then we would head back OUT again.

“That’s your new half halt!” said Megan. “Right now, I want you to half halt him and his canter should get BIGGER.”

the widest hind legs he’s ever hind legged!

So that’s my new half halt right now. It’s not subtle. It’s not small. It’s my legs going GO GO GO and then my seat going UP UP UP (actually I say out loud “over the ground, over the ground, over the ground, on the hind leg, on the hind leg, on the hind leg” to make it happen, but you know).

And that’s where I’m at with half halts.

reprogramming rider, continued (in perpetuity)

I mentioned to Alexis during our warm-up chat that I wanted to get to the canter-trot transitions in particular if we had time and it fit the shape of the lesson. Since our lesson turned out to be all about transitions and aids, we absolutely had time and it definitely fit the shape of the lesson.

The trot work was the hardest walk-trot lesson I’ve ever had. As I trotted around Alexis kept reminding me to bear down, and encouraged me to smooth out my posts. One of Mary Wanless’s images is that the rider’s hips move like an “m” in the trot. In the sitting trot this is super easy to visualize — as the horse’s back moves up + forward + down + forward, the hips should move with it, making a long lower-case, cursive m (or w, if you’re a curly w-er). In the rising trot I’d always struggled to visualize this, because the up-down motion of the rider threw me off. So to make it easier on myself, I decided to map it out on an image using the frame-by-frame captures from my video (thanks Peony!!!).

I took a screenshot every other trot frame, and then used landmarks on my horse to line the saddle up correctly. Then I put a red dot on my hip in each image. You can see that I rise in a peaked, lop-sided, v-type shape.

Alexis wanted me to smooth out my “m”s. Instead of being curved up and down, she said that I posted like stock market peaks and crashes. Accurate. I use/succumb to the motion of the horse to throw myself out of the saddle, and don’t spend much time at the top of the peak. You can also see from that image that I take less time (frames) to rise than I do to come back down (I count 5 to rise and 7 to sit). This tracks with the idea that I throw myself up (stock market peak), and then slide back down. What I should be doing is getting to the top more slowly, and possibly (will need to check) spending more time at the top¬†and¬†bottom of each post. This will help my horse take bigger and more powerful steps, and spend more energy pushing into the ground with each step.

For the canter work, Alexis first asked me to describe my canter aids to her. This is a neat test of the 1st toolkit, I think, and pushed my understanding of aids. Unfortunately, this was a hard question for me to answer. Right now I rise through the canter. I swing my outside leg back one stride before I ask, then I tap with the heel, then I sit into the canter. (This is not what I told Alexis, btw. However, in my rides since then, I’ve realized that this is what I do.) However, I want to sit through the canter aid. Murray does not like sitting through the canter aid. Sometimes he bounces me out of the tack, then we get into a “what was that aid” / “why didn’t you do what I told you to do” / “well you didn’t ask right” / “I don’t care, you need to stop being a dick” kind of fight.


I need to actually sit in this beat of the canter, instead of hovering.
And stack my cereal box up so that my shoulders are properly over my hips and I’m not flailing my upper torso about.

Alexis has her own way of aiding the canter, but suggested that instead of keeping the canter aid on and pressing it in stronger when it doesn’t happen, I reset and start again. The idea being that you want the aid for the canter to be a light press of the outside heel back from the girth. Not “a light or slightly stronger or really firm press of the heel back from the girth.” So the same idea held in the canter transitions: light aid. If response, yay. If no response after “one potato”, light aid + whip tap.

Often by the time we get to the canter, Murray is pretty warmed up and relatively responsive to the aids. This day was no exception. He popped right into the canter, which meant we could focus on the canter mechanic (a tiny bit) and the down transition. Alexis reminded me to exaggerate the up-swing of the canter, which meant pulling my hips up and back with more enthusiasm than I expected. The goal is to get the canter more uphill¬†and make the down transition easier…. because the canter is uphill.

When it was time to work on the down transition, Alexis asked me to do one “normally” first. We did a pretty average down transitions for us, and a pretty below-average down transition for what I want. And then she ripped it all apart, which was great.

RBF set me up with her solo shot one day and it is SOOO COOOL! hhere is my horse looking particularly nice.

My main problem with down transitions (in general, but this shows up particularly in the down transition to the trot) is that Murray does them on his forehand and tends to fall all over himself during and after them. It takes a lot of managing to get the trot back together after them, or to get a down transition that isn’t a hot mess. And through all of this managing over many rides, I’ve never seen significant improvement in the balance of the down transition. So just imagine that: I ask for a down transition, Murray does it but on the forehand, his back drops out from under him, and he whizzes off at the trot with his legs flying all kinds of directions.

It turns out that I kick my horse right after the down transition, which probably makes it really hard for him to organize his trot. And I don’t really have a connection with or communication to the bit, so that’s not great. And I don’t get him uphill enough before the transition, which means the transition can’t really be uphill either.

That’s what we worked on. Alexis had me pick up the canter again (she called me on a double-kick/bounced canter aid, even though the transition itself was nice) and then she told me to 1) keep my bear down, 2) take “a feel” of the bit in my hands, 3) tighten my thighs, 4) bear down dammit Nicole, 5) ask for trot and be prepared to post BIG AND SLOW right away.

We only did a handful of the canter-trot transitions — we ran up against the end of our lesson and Murray getting tired. They were medium successful. I didn’t get run away with, but they weren’t as smooth as I imagined they could be.


super disorganized to organized-ish in a couple of steps. not toooo bad.

There was a¬†lot to digest in this lesson. And since it’s taken me so long to get it all written up, I’ve been implementing the changes for almost two weeks now. It was infuriating to spend 3-ish rides doing nothing but walk-halt and walk-trot transitions off of the lightest leg aid. But the upside is that it¬†is working. Within rides and between rides Murray has become more responsive to the leg, and less absurdly pissed off when I actually apply it. The down transitions have been iffy, but they certainly won’t get fixed in a day.

It’s exciting to see progress, but simultaneously frustrating to have such a detailed understanding of the mistakes I’ve been making up until now. I mean, I guess that’s what learning is, and I want to learn, so I guess I’ll be embracing this feeling (the suck, as Lauren Sprieser puts it). But that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

 

what i wish i’d known

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known,
When I was young and dreamed of glory.

Olivia started me thinking about this all the way back in April. April! And it’s taken me until now to put it together. A lot of the things I were thinking of were aspects of riding that I¬†thought I understood, but which turned out to be nothing like I expected.

I was pretty green when I started with Murray. Greener than I would recommend. Greener than I would be if I had a do-over. But ego is a thing, and at least Murray is a funny and good-natured guy who, antics though he has, doesn’t really want to kill anyone. That greenness meant that I’ve realized and learned a¬†lot of things over the years.

happy babies! but omg my elbows

There will be no short-cuts with this creature

There are some horses where you can teach them something once and it quickly generalizes across a variety of situations. Or horses where you can just try something out and it goes well the first time. Hell, I’ve done it! I clipped Sookie in November without the slightest idea what she’d do in response, and with little concern that it would go anything other than well. That’s just the type of horse she is.

That horse? That horse is not my horse. Murray needs every single lesson — sometimes he needs each one 4 or 6 or ten times. Murray needs every step explained to him. Murray needs every good behavior rewarded and every bad one ignored. Murray needs¬†consistency. Murray needs refreshers and primers when you come back to a lesson after a while off (ahem, clipping).

I thought we’d just do a few things right and skip along and blip bloop beep! There we’d be, jumping around training level courses and killing the spectators with our incredible good looks and shockingly low price point.

Spoiler alert: we’re not.

This is obviously not on Murray. But now I know: there will be no skipped steps. No short-cuts. We will do everything.

You never stop riding your butt off

I had this idea that once we go more trained and less green, I’d just be able to sit up there and look good (maybe wave at my adoring fans as we galloped by?) while Murray did all the work. Sure, I’d read the course maps and do the general directing, and pick a distance here or there. But my horse would be so well trained, I wouldn’t need to ride as hard as I did when training my horse to jump!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. So much wrong.

The first time I rode around the Novice XC at Camelot, I did almost nothing. Because I had a sprained knee. The next time I rode around the XC at Camelot? I had to ride my ass off. I rode my ass off up to every fence that Murray was like “err, there’s something near that I’m not sure about.” I rode my ass off to fences where Murray was like “oh, that’s where we’re going?” I rode my ass off to fences that Murray ate for breakfast.

It’s not the same riding or effort. Taking Murray around his first real XC course was a battle of wills to just keep him moving forward and underneath me. Now I have to do that a lot less — like, 10% of the time probably. The rest of the time I don’t get to just sit there and look pretty. I work hard to keep him put together, set him up well for each fence, and make the ride as good as it can be.

I’m not trying to say I thought that XC would be¬†easy as I moved up the levels. I just thought I wouldn’t have to focus on the¬†riding¬†part so much. Or maybe that my horse would be so trained and consistent that I’d half halt him with one iota of energy ten strides out from a fence for a perfect spot every time. I don’t know. But we ride every fence, and we ride every movement, and we’re better for it.

this magnificent nearly-tracking-up-stride not brought to you¬† by “sitting there looking pretty”

Consistency is key

I don’t know when I realized this. I think it really came on over the last couple of years, as I’ve worked with younger (human) students. I always knew that in training animals, being consistent is essential to clear communication. But one day I just realized that¬†so many of the problems we have are due to a lack of consistency. And I’m not just talking about me and Murray.

How far would we be now if only I’d been consistent from the very beginning? If I hadn’t done hundreds, maybe even thousands, of transitions where I kicked Murray into a trot, then pulled on his face to get him to walk and try again because I thought the transition didn’t meet the standard? If I hadn’t made refusing a fence a crime that earned sympathy sometimes and a wildly out-of-control response at others? If I hadn’t just kicked bigger and moar and harder for a little bit of forward?

This one bites both ways. When I’m not consistent, I muddle over Murray’s incorrect responses more than I probably need to. Did I put that aid on clearly? Was that response within the acceptable range? Did I wobble through the transition and unintentionally cause that? All of that questioning of myself makes the training less clear and precise too.

I’m not a robot, so I don’t expect I’m going to come out the same every day. But if there is any skill I’m working hardest on honing right now, it’s greater consistency.