feels like makin’ progress

The last few months have been heavy hitters in terms of changing the way Murray goes. That’s not a totally fair characterization, as a lot of that work has been about changing how I ride in order to change how the horse goes. But since we’re measuring progress in terms of pony skills here, and I still can’t sit the trot, we’ll focus on the horse. And specifically, we’ll focus on the gaits themselves.

I have had, for some time, a pretty big first toolkit/second toolkit problem. I know what it is my horse is supposed to be doing or doing better, but I don’t have the rider skills to get him to do those things. I know my horse needs to take bigger steps, and that he needs to push into the bridle, and that he needs to bend his hocks and take weight behind. Because I’m also human, and that means that I’m bad at listening to my trainer even when I know I should be, I wasn’t getting out of lessons what I thought I should be. Honestly kinda sounds like I have a thinking problem. But with some good new eyes on the ground and some reinforcement from my main trainer, it feels like pony is moving at light speed through some of these concepts.

cherry-picked trot from April

First, Alexis got me thinking about posting like a piston and actually sitting in to my horse. Kate emphasized the importance of getting my horse to accept the aids instead of trying to shake them off. Of course, it meant that I also had to accept the contact instead of shaking that off too… There was a pretty pivotal ride in there with Kate where she helped me manage my hands and the connection in every step. Literally rewarding Murray for moving in the correct direction with the connection without giving it up, every time he did that. I’m not trying to diminish the importance of those people and those rides, but I’ve already written about them, and a couple of recent rides have built on them even more.

If we back up to quite a few weeks ago, before Camelot, Megan came over to help me prep for the dressage test and balance the canter-trot transitions. At the risk of messing things up, she also played with our trot a bit. The lesson emphasized getting the bend correct on the circles, while keeping the connection to both reins (Murray wants to duck away from the left rein), and lining my horse’s limbs all up with one another correctly while still sending as much energy as possible forward and into the bridle. We also worked a lot on transitions within the trot. Taking Murray’s mincing little trot — the one he comes out with and wants to pop around with all the time, without articulating his joints hardly at all — and stuffing it full of energy so that even while the steps are small he’s still tracking up, and then pushing him out over the ground so that the energy has a place to go.

pretty representative trot from May – not really moving out much at all

Pushing Murray out across the ground has always been hard. It’s easier to move legs faster/canter/fall apart/buck/just not. But when I added energy and articulation (through slooower, smaller posting but still leg and whip) first and then let him out, he actually moved out over the ground. Megan also had me push a little past that, and really keep that post slow+big as I added energy. She wanted me to post slower in the “lengthened” trot than I did in the working trot, to really get even more push across the ground instead of faster leg movement.

Then I rode with Alexis, and had a whole walk-trot lesson all about making my legs quiet and very meaningful. (Kidding — we cantered like three circles.) Doing this for weeks and weeks after the lesson was… painful, to say the least.  But it meant that by the time Megan saw us next, the leg was more meaningful. And then we really got to work.

not-really-trotting with Alexis, but at least I’m not totally giving up on the contact

At the trot, Megan really wanted me to get Murray over-tracking. Which is basically unheard of for us, since he barely tracks up usually. But we worked at it with the same technique as last time — add energy to the little mincey trot, and push it out across the ground. We spent less effort on adding energy to the little trot this time, and more time pushing out across the ground.  Or maybe it just felt that way because our basline has already shifted a bit. I don’t remember exactly what Megan’s words were (not as important since I remember the feeling a bit), but the result was that it felt like the trot was FLYING across the ground and then she’d be like “great, now add a little bit more energy to it” and there was still energy to be added.

It was extremely exhausting to keep that much tone in both Murray’s and my bodies and post slowly and keep the energy and and bear down.


camelot trot. this one’s actually nicer than I expected it would be.

In the canter, she pushed us forward until the canter was taking big steps — probably like normal, 12 foot, horse sized strides! Once I’d achieved the big horse sized stride, I could balance the canter uphill a little without taking it back or upwards. I’ll probably write more about this later, as the feeling still needs to be finessed a little bit. Plus she told me that the bigger canter was my new “half halt” which was pretty much blew my mind.

The best part of all of this is that it’s been extremely replicable in my own rides. I get on my horse and we do some walk-halt-walk-halt transitions (per Alexis). We move into the trot without letting Murray shake off the leg aid (Kate and my trainer), and just let it hang out for a bit (Alexis). And then when I go to add energy to the trot — BAM. It’s right there. It’s not that weird little trot that just moves faster, it’s a bigger trot that pushes Murray into my hands and into the bridle.

It was like between one ride and the next, Murray suddenly learned this trick of pushing into the bridle and trotting out over his back. Not that it just took one ride for it all to come together — this is the cumulative effort of lessons from all of my various people all Spring. But now it’s right there at my fingertips when I ask for it. I don’t even have to ask much. When I rode on Sunday, I barely had to put my leg on in the kinda-pokey warm-up trot and Murray sprung to action into a proper trot.

*almost* as good as it’s felt lately!

I’m not too worried about working on or practicing than the connection and these bigger gaits right now. Which is a first for me. (I’m always like, when can I canter-walk? when can I leg yield? when can I second level? AM I READY NOW?!?!) But within and between each ride I can feel how much progress we are making in the gaits, getting them stronger, smoother, more solidifed, more natural. I’ve not felt this much progress from Murray from day to day to day…. ever, really.

I’d not even describe it as dull. It is routine, but it’s also major progress! And it’s awesome.

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the problem with hills

There’s this thing about hills. It happens to me all the time.

You see a hill in the distance and you’re like “That’s not so big! I could totally get to the top of that! That would be so much fun!” So you run off through the grass to mount your new obstacle.

Only, hills are always much bigger than they appear from afar. And you’re always more afar than you first thought.

So you climb and you climb. It’s tiring.

There’s so much more hill to go. Climbing hills sucks. Your legs hurt. Your brain hurts. This was the worst idea ever.

At some point, it seems like it might be worth just giving up on this stupid hill. By then, you’ve usually gone far enough that looking back, the beginning seems very far off and rather small. And you know how long that distance really is, now. You’ve come a ways. Might as well continue.

So you huff and you puff and your quads burn and you make it to the top of the hill. Finally! Joyous day! Hallelujah! Carpe the dayum hill diem!

You turn to survey your surroundings. Everything the light touches is your land!

And there, just behind you, is another damn hill.

smashing & crashing

I’ve been watching a lot of Great British Bake Off so I mean smashing in all of its possible positive connotations, and not just the ones that look a bit like this.

I was a little worried about the XC course at Camelot. It was challenging — which is pretty much what Camelot excels at. And instead of a nice, friendly, welcoming, come-jump-me first fence, the Novice course had a big, barky, ramp-y hanging log.  I knew I’d have to ride it hard.  The second fence was the arrow, but after that pretty much everything on course was something we’d seen or jumped before.  They were still challenging and a good size, but they were at least challenges I was familiar with. Including that knee-busting down bank from last year.

yep, this arrow!

Murray warmed up really well. He didn’t feel tired, but he was listening and wasn’t sassing me too much. Kate, on the other hand, was full of sass. She kept telling me things like keep my ankle bone on my horse, and that I needed to steady my lower leg and stop jumping for my horse. And I was like “don’t you KNOW how this horse feels about having legs wrapped around him?” and she was like “stop sassing me and be a better rider”*. So I tried to do just that.

Given our problems with down banks lately, I made a plan with Kate for the down bank. She wanted me to ride the house before it on an opening stride, and then push Murray forward from that house for a stride or two with that same BIGGER feeling. Then I would keep my leg on and sit a little back to the down bank (Kate said I wanted to keep that feeling of having 3/4 of the horse in front of me). Murray could take all the time he needed to look at it, but I wasn’t to take my leg off or lose that forward motion. (I think. That’s how I remember the conversation, at least.)

The part I didn’t tell Kate was that if he refused it once and didn’t give me a good feeling about a second go at it, I was planning to retire. I wasn’t prepared to fight about it, especially not with a TD looking on.

Fortunately for us, the down bank wasn’t a problem!

Right down the bank, hooray!

We did, unfortunately, have a problem with the first fence. I tapped Murray three times coming up to it, but he was having none of it and needed a good, hard look at that fence as we got on top of it. I circled him and we got over it the second time, but at that point I knew we were absolutely just in it to finish and not to make time.

And it’s a good thing that I got that into my head early on, because our course was riddled with ridiculous moments of barely slithering over fences (maybe Murray learned something from that snake?), trantering, and stopping to STARE at fences that were absolutely not on our course.

Despite the stopping and staring, the fences I actually had a plan for rode really well. We got right over the trakehner without circling (my foolproof technique to get Murray’s attention back before fences on a downhill), and the down bank rode perfectly. I thought we’d get such an utterly shitty spot to the roll top out of the water because we’d lose all of the energy through the water, but lo and behold it rode just fine. We got in tight but not because we chipped in! It was the fences where I was just like “this is normal and easy, just go like you go at home!” that we flubbed majorly.

I told Kate that I pushed and leaned to this fence and took the flyer and it was awesome! I did push, and I did lean, and it was awesome. A flyer it was not.

Which is a pretty telling lesson.

We ended up with two 20s and a fair bit of time. C’est la vie when you stop for a peek every five fences on course and throw in an untimely circle before the last fence because someone is afraid of the finisher’s booth. It absolutely wasn’t perfect, but it’s also something that has gotten much better with practice in the past.

On Sunday morning Murray was definitely tired. He wasn’t quite as peppy in our stadium warm up as he had been for cross country. He was a good boy though, and jumped all the things, even with a HUGE break in the middle because of show scheduling probs.

I’m not exactly sure what went wrong in stadium. The timing wasn’t perfect. And we were tired. And the fence we crashed into was right next to that dreaded announcer’s/finisher’s booth that Murray hates so much.

What I know happened is that Murray jumped big over fence 4 and even bigger over 5. We didn’t manage to get pictures of number 5, but I really felt him crack his back over it. We landed in a bit of a pile, and I didn’t manage to get him back as we came around the corner to 6. Kate describes Murray’s scrambly gaits as “chicken gaits” and that’s exactly where we still were. We didn’t have a good rhythm and we didn’t have a good tempo. Whether it’s because he was scared of the judge’s booth or the fence or just didn’t feel like it, Murray tried to cram another stride in before the oxer and there simply wasn’t space. And down it came.

 

 

Fence four. Just a wee bit higher than we needed to be.

It was a disappointing end to the weekend to be sure. It would be nice to finish an event on my first go at the level some time. (And maybe to stop failing so hard at Camelot!) But it was an educational one, and it was fascinating to see Murray’s and my problems through a new trainer’s eyes.

We have a lot to work on — as always. But it’s work I know we can do, and work I’m excited to start on.

Plus — as many of you have mentioned — my outfit was on point. Now I just need some navy gloves….

*Not an actual Kate quote. Just the way I interpreted her kind sentiment.

many firsts (just not the satiny kind)

This weekend at Camelot was… a lot. A lot of fun, a lot of firsts, a lot of hard riding, a lot of hard work. I didn’t go in expecting it to be easy, and it wasn’t. But it was harder than I thought it would be.

This was my first solo hauling trip, and my first time traveling to a show without my main trainer. Which is not to say I was without training — Kate stepped in and did an incredible job. If I’m clever I’ll dedicate a whole post to it. The short version: you gotta get yourself a Kate.

I borrowed my MIL’s rig to get Murray to Camelot and despite a minor anxiety-inducing moment leaving her driveway (there is a VERY NARROW BRIDGE with a VERY TIGHT TURN) it was smooth sailing. A trainer friend helped me find someone to back the trailer up in a pretty primo parking space (I just had to drive through a dressage warm up to get to it), and we were set!

Right before we schooled in the dressage courts, I stepped on a snake for the first time! I was lining Murray up with a big wooden mounting block and checking his girth and the stirrups when I stood on something a little squishy. I looked down and thought “that’s funny, someone left a lead rope! Usually I’m the one who leaves lead ropes around.” And when I lifted my foot up, the lead rope SLITHERED AWAY.

Clearly my Australianness has worn off, because it’s genetically ingrained in us to NOT step on snakes. And there was a danger noodle, right under my foot!

helmet + bonnet + coat on point!

This was Murray’s first show wearing a bonnet, and my first show in my sparkly new helmet! (I’m pretty sure Leah found it for me last International Helmet Day, thanks Leah!!!) I think Murray liked his bonnets. Every time I went to put them on he’d duck his head down and let me pull the fabric over his ears. Normally he is not a fan of me messing around with his ears or the top of his head.

Oh and — duh — this was our first rated Novice.


and our first tail braid!

We had a personal best dressage score — our first 35! — even with two, two mistakes! Murray broke to the trot in the free walk and medium walk — another set of firsts, because usually he’s like “uggghhh do we really have to trot again, I thought we were done?”.

There were some less awesome firsts, though.

We had our first good crash into a fence, bringing down most of an oxer.

And for the first time, I retired on course.

It’s the only thing you can do after crashing like that, really.

This was also the first show I’ve gone to where I knew that I wasn’t prepared enough. Not that I haven’t been underprepared before — I just didn’t know it in the past.

It was by no means a perfect weekend. But all things considered, it was a pretty damn good one. Tears and all.

I learned a ton. I got to gallop fast and jump big. If there are holes in Murray’s ability to listen to the leg and go forward toward scary things, it’s nothing we can’t fix (I hear it’s all about this thing called “stimulus control”, right Kate?).

A million thanks to Sheila and to David and Olivia for pics. Where would I be without you guys?!

distracting vs. counter-conditioning

Austen posted something on Insta several months ago about the futility of distracting big dogs in city parks when they get hyperaroused. It made me think pretty critically about my own training paradigm. I didn’t totally agree with her premise because I’ve known a lot of really quality dog trainers to successfully train dogs to walk quietly and calmly on leash around things that used to simulate the CRAP out of them. But on the other hand I kinda really agreed* because I’ve seen a lot of people (and been the person) frantically trying to stuff my their animal’s mouth with treats in a desperate attempt to “distract” them.

(*edited for clarity after I posted this)

if at first you don’t succeed in training your dog to walk on a loose leash
give up and just take her places she can be off-leash

Both counter conditioning and distraction have been major parts of my clicker training program with the Murr-man this last year. And they will definitely both have their place in my training program. But the two aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, and I think that a lot of people accidentally blur the lines between them. This leads to poorly trained animals (and people), and at least one of the misconceptions around clicker training with horses.

Distraction is directing an individual’s attention away from something else (loosely adapted from here — not actually a training term, I don’t think).

Counter-conditioning is training based in classical conditioning that attempts to replace a bad or unpleasant behavioral response with more adaptive or desired behavioral responses (adapted from this definition).

This Facebook post from my friend, a trainer whom I respect deeply for her work with many species and some seriously challenging training tasks (train a giraffe to hold her foot on a radiograph place for ringbone rads, anyone?), added to this thought process and really clarified things for me.

I was like Oh. Shit. The piece I’ve been missing this whole time is high reinforcement for incompatible activities.

To run with the dog example a little more: when I first started R+ training with animals, a friend of mine had a dachshund who barked at nothing, for no reason. Pretty typical dachshund behavior, but this particular dog’s barking was a little more off-the-charts than the other dogs. And I think it was shrill and irritating.

My training approach to this particular behavior was to interrupt the behavior (yelling, stomping, picking the dog up and moving her to a different place) and then start a training session. Which didn’t work. And because I never trained a “quiet” behavior or specifically focused on incompatible behaviors, potentially even encouraged her to bark more. When she barked, I grabbed her and stuffed treats in her face. What’s not to like? In contrast, my trainer friend allows her dogs to give off a couple of alarms and then rewards them for longer bursts of incompatible behavior, like settling on their bed or laying on the floor with her. The dog I mentioned above would never have been able to voluntarily do either of those things, because she was too over-stimulated to think about laying down, unless I physically picked her up and moved her.

i give him a 10/10 for settling and laying down on the — oh crap I don’t want him laying down out here

There’s a superb video of the late Dr. Sophia Yin training a dog to change his association with a stimulus he really hated. This also informed the way I thought about counter-conditioning. Your horse doesn’t have to go from 100 to 0 in order to earn a reward. Any movement of the needle over toward the behavior you want is good. And sometimes — as you see Dr. Yin doing in the video — you do just “distract” the training subject. Dr. Yin also states one concern people have about treating during aggressive events, and a major reason that many people don’t clicker train their horses: they are worried that they will be reinforcing the aggression (or in the case of horses, rude behavior).

(I just watched the video through again and have to profess my love of Dr. Yin. The world lost a bright light when she died.)

scrolling through old pictures I found this one of Murray treating himself to his neighbor’s personal space. because why not?

To bring this back around to Murray, understanding the incompatible behavior part of counter conditioning made a huge difference in our tacking-up training. For Murray, tacking up went like this.

  1. dislike the girth, get roller-skate-y and fling head in air
  2. skitter/run away
  3. girth goes away, yay! instant reward
  4. if not 3, then do more of 2 and/or other things until 3 is achieved

To change his association with tacking up, I tackled the problem from both ends. I rewarded him heavily for a behavior incompatible with running away that is also a common physiological marker of relaxation: putting his head down. (I learned this trick from my dressage trainer a long time ago — to kindof fake it til we make it with the head-down thing. It will probably take more to explain than I want to in this post, so perhaps I’ll get back to it some day.)  Murray couldn’t relax enough to get his head below the point of his shoulder at first, but I just kept at it day after day. I kept the girth stimulus mostly below threshold, and then rewarded him heavily for putting his head down as low as he could get it. Now, if I mess up and Murray gets a little anxious while we’re tacking up I keep doing whatever it is I’m doing (holding the girth on his belly or doing up one buckle, for example) and then calmly wait until he settles and puts his head down low. Then I click and reward him.

The same thing goes for giraffing his way around new stuff. I know he’s scared of this stuff. A carefully misplaced leaf scares him. And that’s okay. But instead of patting and soothing and treating Murray for looking at that scary stuff (potentially valid options if he were a different creature), I ask him to perform an incompatible behavior and reward him for doing that. Usually it’s a low-placed hand target, but sometimes I’ll ask him to take a step or two forward with me toward the stuff and reward him a lot for that.

On the other hand, if I were just distracting Murray I’d be letting him do his own thing (more realistically tugging on the reins and trying to get him to walk with me) and simultaneously stuffing carrots in his face. Which would be pointedly not helping the situation, since it is rewarding behaviors I don’t want (ignoring me, staring at scary stuff without moving, being alert) without asking him to give me any of those behaviors I do want (listening to me, putting his head down, walking past scary stuff).


excuse me you want me to do what?!

It’s a fine line, and counter conditioning and distraction aren’t mutually exclusive. And I’ll absolutely use distraction to break through the haze of NOPE that Murray sometimes gets when we’ve grossly surpassed his stimulus threshold. But I do think it’s an important distinction for us to understand, since as riders we are effectively training an animal (or animals) every day.

Distracting a horse without a plan or any consideration of the desired outcome of the behavior may very well lead to worse behaviors. When I was standing around shoving a steady stream of carrots into my horse’s mouth for just tolerating the farrier, I wasn’t paying attention to Murray’s body language or what he was doing to the farrier. I could easily have been rewarding him for subtly kneeing her in the guts.

On the other hand, a carefully thought out counter-conditioning strategy has worked very well for us in a number of areas.

Any thoughts or additions to this? Was this something I was really late to realizing? My understanding of training is constantly evolving, so I’m sure there is a lot that I’m missing here, and a lot for me to learn still!

resilience

One of the coolest things about Murray lately has been his resilience to pressure. Not all pressure. There are still plenty of things that are a hard no-go. But under saddle? There have been some major changes.

I will not be walking past that new fluffy arena footing nope nope nope

Let’s take my ride with Kate a couple of weeks ago as an example. Kate encouraged me to habituate Murray to a “1” of contact (i.e. some contact, never no contact), and to pillow my aids into him so that he doesn’t just shake them off in an effort to avoid whatever it is he wants to avoid. In the past, when I’ve tried to walk with any level of contact there’s been a whole lot of nooooooooooo eeeeeeeeeee hrrrrrrrrrrrrrr *pffft* *pffft* *pffft* (those are farts).

But in the three weeks since I rode with Kate, and the three rides since I had Megan over to help troubleshoot, there has been an alarming lack of squealing and bucking. And it’s not because I’ve caved and gone back to the floppy-reins-no-contact way of life. Nope, I’m holding on to those reins. Homeboy is just… okay with it.

who are you and what have you done with my horse

Then last week I rode with Megan, and she had me really push Murray forward but keep him in my hand the whole time. (Another thing that has previously cued bucking.) We got to that place where Murray is really forward but also kinda tense, but not yet unrideable (it involved a lot of outside rein, I’ll tell you about it later).  Megan talked me through riding that tense ball of dressage fury, all while mentally walking him back from the brink of explosion. The best part was that I could still retain the impulsion, connection, and correctness that I developed while in that high-energy place. And STILL no objections!

There are other things too. Walk-trot and trot-canter transitions that are (relatively) prompt and (somewhat) on the bit without falling apart or diving onto the forehand. Sitting into Murray without perching and anticipating badness. Keeping a lid on the Murray bottle. Good work and awesome rides are coming hand over fist right now. I literally cannot believe that I’m sitting on the same horse that I had a year ago.

casual reminder of May 2017

Part of me wonders if I could have gotten these results by riding this way earlier.

Part of me thinks, “maybe??”

But the other part, a bigger part, is not so sure. I’ll never know because I didn’t try, but I don’t think that resilience to pressure was something this horse really had in his repertoire before. His standard response to pressure was 1) run away, 2) go sideways, 3) run away more, 4) lie down (+/- velociraptor screams and bucking).

Something has shifted lately. I’m not sure exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the magic of the looming 1-0 (next year!). Maybe it’s the clicker training. Maybe it’s the long break we took. Maybe it’s the biomechanics changes. Maybe it’s my growing understanding of training paradigms. Maybe it’s everything. I don’t fucking know.

The resilience is awesome though. It means I can go for longer periods of hard but correct work before backing off. And it means I can work on managing things like bend and geometry instead of whether or not my horse is going to lose his ish at any given moment.

OH SHIT I FORGOT. The best part is that even when he is losing his ish over something — not a huge thing, but let’s say a baby turkey just flies into the arena while you’re trying to canter a circle — he comes right back to me! It’s not perfect, it’s not gorgeous, but it is rideable, and it’s a semblance of reasonable.

puppies >>> dressage (sometimes)

So. Resilience. I wish there was a recipe for it, but I don’t have one. If you have one, you should let me know what you did to get there and how you reward and foster that resilience. Because I’ve learned that it’s essential, and I want every horse ever to have it in spades.

xc schooling: this is not a negotiation

The thing that sucks about being an integral part of event organization/management is that you spend all this time making courses fun and rideable, and then you decorate them and make them all gorgeous and even more fun, and then you clean them all up before you get a chance to ride them. I mean, talk about unfair. So obviously I’m all over any opportunity to school the course when one comes up — especially right after the event, when the footing is still awesome!

Murray was hard to read for much of the time we were on course. He was super calm and mellow walking around, not jigging or spooking or pulling ahead of the group. Just walking around and enjoying the scenery. And that is awesome! I totally want ponito to be calm and mellow out there.

When we started warming up over the easy, mellow fences, Murray got a bit of pep in his step. He pulled me toward the little logs on the ground, and even some of the bigger ones.

Then we came to a fence that was a bit bigger, and a bit more like a cross country jump — a pretty standard log box, nothing too exciting. Just a bit different. And Murray was like “okay, okay, okay” right up to the base and then “WOAH NO WAY”. Which is really not that easy to ride, especially when you’re not in the best riding shape yourself.

So I got a little defensive and kicked Murray toward the smaller fences for more of  warm up. And in response he got pissed.

The problem with riding defensively (for me, at least) is that it means I get left waaay behind over the fences, and I can’t stick with the motion of the jump. I unfold the landing gear way too early, and end up slamming down on Murray’s back and/or face with every fence. Which is understandably unpleasant.


not how i want to be landing

But when your horse is being pulling you forward one moment and slamming on the brakes the next, it’s hard not to get defensive. And when he bucks and leaps and throws his head up so high he’s looking back at you between his ears well… you don’t really want to let go of those reins.

That is, of course, why I have a neck strap. I was just too stupid to think of it at first.

hello, mother!

We jumped back and forth over the log for a bit, with an unnecessary amount of accompanying antics. So I decided to leave the log box for later, when Murray was in a bit better mental space, and we headed up the hill to watch the prelim and training team tackle the down banks.

I had wanted to practice over one of the medium (probably 3′ drop?) banks, since Camelot often has one. But we just settled for watching and laying down in the grass instead.

When we got to the little BN/Novice banks, Murray was like “YES UP BANKS YES” and he was awesome! Then I turned him around to go down them and he was like “NO HELL NO”.

Long story short we tried easing him into it by going off the edges and just representing and representing and representing and following another horse and Murray just doubled down with Nope. I could feel him pushing his sides out against my leg further and further back from the lip of the bank, and could just tell that the conversation was getting less and less productive. It would have been different if there had been an even smaller bank to step down, but as it was I called it off. I knew it wasn’t going to get better, only worse.

So we moved on to the water. After which came Murray’s piece de resistance of NOPE.

look it’s just a little rainbow chevron! it’s awesome, okay Murray?!!

So there’s this new rainbow coop coming out of the water. And I’ll admit, it’s painted a little scarily for a pony. It’s probably a bit weird looking in their not-quite-full-color vision. And Murray was having NONE of it.

I walked him up to it, had him touch it, let him look over both sides of it. Then we trotted up to it and he was like “naw” pretty far out. So I cantered up to it and he was still like “nope.” We switched to the other side so he was going back to the group and he SCREECHED to a halt basically right on top of the fence. And then he did it AGAIN. And then I smacked him with my reins, gave him a good long runway, and got a quality, rhythmic canter going. And he stopped again.

Each time he stopped he was basically on top of it. Front feet touching the base board, nose right on top of it. He just didn’t want to jump it.

I’m not going to pretend I was giving him the perfect ride every time. But it was a good enough ride and a small enough fence that stopping on top of it was truly unnecessary.

a much more reasonable landing position! yay

This might be too much anthropomorphism, but it really felt like Murray was thinking “I don’t know if you recall, but I don’t have to do this anymore if I don’t want to.” Which is, unfortunately for him, not the case. I’m not going to ask him to do anything too crazy. And in response, he’s going to have to do what I ask.

We had this discussion once more about a bright orange table (think Home Depot if it were a highlighter), and then a small green and blue bunker. After the green and blue bunker there was a long gallop stretch, and Murray really took off and flattened out. And I think something clicked then — that cross country is the place where we do the jumping and the galloping and it’s not soooooooooooo bad out here after all.

We schooled the ditches with a good bit of success (it really was my fault for letting Murray point himself at a ditch I knew had just been filled with white gravel — I should have given him more of an opportunity to look at it first), and Murray started pulling me toward the fences again. I felt like we were finally in a good enough rhythm that I could get into a proper jumping position and stay out of his way, and in return he could use his body the way he wanted to.

We ended with the last few fences on the Novice course — a large hanging palm log on a gentle downhill, short gallop, then a pretty sharp left turn to a little coop. Murray cantered down to the palm log and felt so good that I just let him gallop on to the final fence. He slowed to a trot for a hot minute when he thought that I was going to ask him to jump the training or prelim fences backwards, but then I turned him onto that sharp left and he saw the coop and was like “oh super!” and trotted right up and over it.

Getting into that groove felt awesome! I just wish it hadn’t taken us 90 minutes to get there! Fingers crossed that with a few more jump lessons and another XC outing under our belt we get back to that place of rideability more quickly and can actually, you know, run a whole course.