get organized! (aspen h.t.)

The truck curse was still with me two weeks later when Aspen Farms Horse Trials rolled around. Wednesday I took an eight hour roadtrip back to Yakima to retrieve my beloved truck. Then the next morning, one of the tires was suspiciously low after I had topped it up the night before. Next, barnmate got injured rendering her unable to show. Day now thoroughly upside down, I zipped off to Les Schwab to get the hole in my tire fixed and TrJ rearranged her day to show barnmate’s horses for the weekend.

About four hours after I had intended to leave, I loaded Speedy up in my Loaner Trailer (I really, really like that trailer) where he looked at me suspiciously since he was alone, but stood still as can be for the whole ride. So still, in fact, that I pulled off at a truck stop to check that he was still standing in there. And he was, just…. completely still.

We have had an uncharacteristically wet spring in the PNW this year. We got 12.87″ of rain at my house in March, April, and May of this year. For the same period in 2020 we got 7.5″ and only 3.57″ in 2021. We had a few sunny days leading up to the show but the humidity was rising and the barometer was getting low (literally we measure these things at my house now). According to all sources, it was going to be a wet and wild one at Aspen.

It wasn’t quite raining men, but when I got there the parking area was an absolute mud pit. A friend of TrJ’s had kindly saved me a spot and I wrangled my trailer into it. I got Speedy unloaded and into his stall — literally the closest stall to the entry gate, which meant he had lots to gawk at all weekend — and then committed to tacking up for the shortest hack I could reasonably fit in because it was just raining harder and harder every minute.

wet wet wet. I bought this rain coat before Kentucky and it saved me at Aspen!
Lee Schaber

As an aside, WHY are people such assholes in show parking? I had to knock on someone’s LQ door to ask them to move their truck to get into my spot as they were blocking both the road and the spot. The group parked on the other side of the spot asked me to repark and move a little further away from their rig. I declined, since I didn’t think the ground would hold up to repositioning. This is show parking. The goal is to fit in as many rigs as possible, not provide you with luxury accommodations you wingdings. If you want a bigger spot, buy an RV spot.

During my hack Speedy decided he couldn’t possibly canter in the puddles in the arena, which was fairly worrisome. When I told TrJ she advised me to put in a couple of small grass studs for dressage the next day because — surprise!! — I got to ride on the grass. This actually worked out in my favor, as I’m not sure the property owner would have appreciated me studding up for dressage in his sand arena.

still not straight 10s for cuteness??? but got a compliment on his canter this time!

My ride time was 8:56, so after TrJ and I got barnmate’s horses settled in I poured myself a cocktail and tried to braid Speedy. People were cruising back in to the show grounds after dinner at that point, and Speedy was at his most gawkiest and fidgety. After getting three braids done in an hour I gave up, decided it would happen in the morning or not at all, and set myself a 4 am alarm. Worst case scenario I would beg off my failure to braid with the fact that it is beginner novice and — I think — not technically required.

I really need to get my own watch to wear to shows, because once again I had a bit of a timing panic when I heard the warmup/ring stewards calling the rider directly ahead of me. (Fortunately they were informing them they were three out or something, but it still got me a little worried.) Speedy did jump one puddle as we were cantering around in the warmup, and I was a little hesitant to really put my leg on him on the slick grass. TrJ encouraged me to trust that he had his footing and that I need to practice putting my leg on him because I need to be able to push him forward even over sloppy ground.

As far as the test went, it was the first time I got into the ring and could actually feel and ride and make adjustments during a dressage test, which was huge for me! I was chatting with a friend about it later and she described the contrasting feeling as “hoping your warmup was good enough and holds through the test,” which is how I normally feel going into a dressage test. Speedy, for his part, was excellent. I’m always so impressed with how he buckles down and is such as yes-man in the show environment. Yet another thing to love about him.

dressage test video:

My cross country ride was Saturday early afternoon. It rained hard Friday night, but by Saturday morning the sun was starting to peek out. Novice riders went in the morning and there were some pretty wild skid marks from the earliest horses on course. A couple of soggy course walks had me convinced that none of the questions on the course looked big or scary (and there was a sharkstooth that I was super excited to jump!) but that the quality of the footing would really be a deciding factor in how I rode. After her Novice XC ride, TrJ told me to put in some pretty big studs and feel it out as I went. Luckily, that week I had just schooled at Inavale in a lot of wet, sticky mud, so I had an idea of how Speedy might feel in those conditions and how I might want to ride him.

Luckily the ground had really firmed up by the time I got out on course, and Speedy didn’t have any footing troubles or hesitation compared to the horses in the morning. Speedy left the start box with the same open, easy canter that I’d felt from him at EI and I felt both excited and peaceful as we cantered over the first few fences.

I was excited for this ramp and Speedy jumped it in style
Cortney Drake Photography

I discovered at fence three that I had pressed the wrong button on my watch to get it to start, so I was running without minute markers. I tried on a long gallop stretch to get it started but couldn’t seem to find the “start” button (it’s just the biggest button on the watch, Nicole, no big deal) so gave up. I estimated that Speedy’s easy canter would be right on pace for the course (350 mpm I think?) so figured that as long as I moved my pace up from that a bit and made sure to gallop the longer stretches I would be fine.

The water entrance was where I had my first taste of trouble with Speedy: coming up to the wide, entrance he skittered to the right and I aaaalmost missed the flag. Later, walking the course at Inavale, TrJ explained to me that you really want young/green horses to be able to see their way into and out of the water. I clearly took too steep of an approach to this entrance, so Speedy’s eye was glancing right past the flag and around the water instead he of thinking about going through the water. The better approach would have been to go out wide to the right and turn Speedy to the water so he was approaching it more directly.

eeeeeps!

But we made it in and through, and I knew I’d need to purposefully half halt and put my leg on for the second water on course. I got excited and leaned for the long one to the sharks tooth, and then absolutely did not stay with Speedy with my body, so that jump was a bit ugly too.

Coming down the hill to the second water, I made that effort to purposely slow Speedy and point him into and through the water, and he entered with less hesitation this time. The second to last fence had been pulled off the course because the landing was a total swamp, so after the second water we had another long gallop stretch to just two more fences.

Nicole: so excited to jump this fence!!!!!!
Also Nicole: jumps the fence really poorly *facepalm*
Cortney Drake Photography

Speedy was careful with the terrain changes throughout the course. Aspen has both gently rolling terrain and some steeper knobs, pimples, and moguls that the course designers use liberally for all levels. Whenever we had a steep downhill, Speedy slowed to a trot as he assessed the grade and I legged on to encourage him to roll back into a canter when he was comfortable. I think it will be good for us to practice developing and maintaining an uphill canter even through those quicker terrain changes. But for now we have time to kill and it doesn’t matter if we trot a few downhill slopes. I’d rather than than have him panic and run downhill out of control.

Since I had no watch, I had no idea whether I’d come in on time on cross country and had to wait until scores were posted online. While I waited (and iced my horse) one of my best friends showed up with his daughters (his wife was one of the vets working at the show). Speedy napped and we put together an enrichment ball for him and the girls admired him (for about five minutes, and then they became distracted with the bed tucked up in the gooseneck of the trailer).

Sunday I didn’t ride until early afternoon again, and I spent the morning watching some of the 2*/Prelim with my friend and his daughters. Overnight the course designers and builders had to move sections of tracks and multiple fences for almost every single level for Sunday’s cross country. The rain (which started again Saturday night) and slop created by the horses that had already run cross country forced their hand. I cannot imagine the stress that must have caused everyone on both sides. Luckily, I got to do stadium on Sunday!

While I was warming Speedy up for stadium, I was coming around to one of the fences and as I was making the turn TrJ yelled at me “get organized!” This is not uncommon for me to hear from TrJ; I seem to be the perpetually disorganized. In this case though, I thought “I was just about to, uggggh!!” And then I realized…. TrJ wants me to get organized earlier than I think I need to get organized. The next go around I tried to organize myself through the turn, rather than on the straight away, and TrJ still beat me to the punch with her “get organized!” I definitely still have plenty to work on in the organization department.

omg the snoooot — Cortney Drake Photography

The stadium course at Aspen had a little more height than the one at EI, but once again was a really fun, flowing course. And this time I headed in with a determination to actually ride this course. I did a pretty good job of keeping Speedy steadily forward until we turned around to the vertical that was on the diagonal across the arena. It was a long approach after coming around the corner, and Speedy got way close and rapped it hard. After watching the video about a hundred times, I needed to get Speedy a bit better organizer earlier in the turn and keep the canter steady through the turn and down the long approach. I didn’t actually have enough space on the long approach to “just steady” after rebalancing, and Speedy moved up ever so slightly to the fence (which is his tendency anyway), getting us awfully close.

I love Speedy here, but there’s looots for me to work on.

After flagrantly turning back to check on that rail, we came around to the in and out. I’d definitely lost some control at this point and Speedy jumped crooked over the oxer in and then (of course) saved us over the out. Since Speedy powered up to fit in the two, when I sat on him to half halt to the final fence he didn’t immediately come back to me, so I figured it wasn’t worth making a big deal about it (spoiler alert: TrJ did not agree) and let Speedy carry us down to the fence.

Luckily Speedy is both quick and handy and he got out of his own way for the last fence as well and left that one up, so we had another double clear round under our belts.

Lee Schaber

The scores in our division at Aspen were nuts. The top six riders in my division all finished on their dressage scores — me included — and only a few riders dropped down during XC or stadium. I started in 9th after dressage and only moved up to sixth.

Regardless, I was super proud of both Speedy and myself for getting through our first soggy PNW event without any major mishaps! Although, we got super lucky and it wasn’t actually raining during any of our rides, and the sun even came out for our cross country run a little bit. But those frigid, soaking, Aspen (poor Aspen, always seems to happen at Aspen) weekends are a staple of the PNW eventing scene so we had to have one sooner or later.

Corney Drake Photography

Writing this all out, and watching all my videos again, it’s becoming clear to me that I need to invest a little more mental effort into getting Speedy and myself organized! I need to be quicker to get organized, and better about staying organized (since it’s more efficient to stay that way than it is to vacillate between organized and disorganized. Though honestly, I’m sure that will be a long-term piece of homework for me. Being organized is not my strong suit.

don’t forget to #hugyourhorse! Cortney Drake Photography

getting back into it (ei h.t.)

When I lived in California we used to say that Trainer B was cursed because her truck would always break down at the most inopportune time: on the way to horse shows. Since my truck shat the bed right in the middle of Yakima Nation with no cell service while I was hauling, I’m starting to think I’m the cursed one.

Seriously, love everything about this horse.

With my amazing barnmate’s help and some in-law advice I did eventually make it to Washington State Horse Park on Thursday afternoon. After getting Speedy settled in, taking a little three hour road trip with a friend to rescue my trailer, and schlepping enough of my shit back and forth from my friend’s trailer to get me sorted for the night, I had just enough time to squeeze in a humid sunset ride. I walked for a long time clicking and treating Speedy for woah-ing. We were both edgy to start with but as we meandered Speedy slowly relaxed and so did I. I had enough time to trot and canter around near the dressage court that I would ride in, and to wander around the warmup as well.

I got lucky and my friends from OldTrJ’s barn wandered by right as I was starting to sort out my bed up in the goose of the trailer and dragged me back to their camp for leftover pasta. After which I wrapped Speedy and took him out for a romantic late-night stroll. We were the only ones out, and the only sounds were horses munching and shifting in their stalls. It was so peaceful and beautiful in the dark with just me and Speedy. So despite all the drama Speedy and I got in a nice ride, I got a square meal in me, and I had a nice warm, dry bed to sleep in with only a Hazel-sized lump in the middle weighing down the blankets.

for something that only weighs 37 lbs, this dog can exert some serious gravitational force on some blankets

I didn’t ride until the afternoon on Friday, but spent much of the morning schlepping my stuff back and forth to get reorganized and relocate everything (that had once been carefully packed and organized. Sigh). TrJ told me to get in a prep ride in the morning which was absolutely mind blowing to me. Ride my horse… twice? In one day? On dressage day? Twice?

But TrJ is the boss and so I tacked up early for a warmup prep ride. It was pretty surreal, honestly. I walked into the warmup in just normal riding clothes, clearly not show clothes, and let Speedy wander around smelling piles of poop while I listened to trainers coaching their riders and watched riders stress over their warmup. And I got to just… chill. When we felt ready I picked up a trot and did some work, keeping it light. All of my focus was turned on to just us as the warmup moved on around us. It was bizarre to be that person in warmup who is just doing their own thing, pursuing their own goals, staying out of peoples’ way but otherwise immune to the world around them.

This mane is a NIGHTMARE to braid. It’s pretty thick, which is made worse by the fact that I cut it a little too short back in April. Plus his hair is pretty stiff so it’s always trying to escape from the bounds of the braid itself and loosening the braids over time. I had to go to California to get a braiding lesson to do a better job.

When my dressage time finally rolled around I was way more nervous than for my morning prep ride. Speedy was awesome though. After TrJ warmed us up, we marched right into that dressage court and I robotically made my way through the test just desperately trying to stay on course and keep Speedy somewhat on the bit (really still working on the rideability for us). I only really remember two things:

  • one, coming down into the walk and thinking “holy shit we are walking so slowly” and “this free walk is going nowhere” and was convinced I’d get a 5 or lower on those movements.
  • two, Speedy got super behind my leg in the canter-trot transition right and then glugged into the walk early. Rather than kick him back into the trot and deal with the ugly fallout of that, I just let him ooze into the walk a whole letter early.
Obviously cried with happiness after my dressage test, and then was even happier to see this score. 32.4 WITH an error, holy shit. Though I didn’t think “know thy test” was as funny as my friends did. Like uh, duh, yes that is a given.

On stadium morning, I made a classic Nicole error and mixed up my SJ and XC times and got on Speedy an hour before my ride time. Oops. Then I stayed too long in the “flatting” zone of the warmup, and TrJ had to hustle me over the warmup jumps so I would be warmed up.

Speedy was awesome for stadium, of course. The course was set pretty soft and wasn’t too exciting or technical, and we cruised right around. The first few jumps I got some awkward tight spots despite trying to move Speedy up to better ones. As the course went on things smoothed out and got better. Right up until the oxer in to the two-stride, where I leaned for the long one and Speedy intelligently crammed another small stride in and lifted his feet up over it so we didn’t take it down. We somehow still fit in two, because this pony is a freaking genius.

Really, we did not need to get that close.

Later TrJ asked me if I noticed that Speedy’s stride got bigger and bigger throughout the course. I paused for a long time, wishing I could somehow say yes to that question but the answer was solidly “nope”.

After icing Speedy I headed over to the volunteer tent to see if I could help out, but they were full on volunteers for the afternoon! Instead, I signed up for a volunteer shift as the stadium timer the next day after my XC ride was over but before barnmate would want to leave (I got to time her division!). Then we walked over to the Preliminary and Intermediate XC courses (about a mile hike away) and watched the prelim riders go!

We were pretty forward and flat to this fence, but I really wanted Speedy to rebalance in anticipation of the down bank coming up next. It felt scrambly at the time but doesn’t look too bad in the video!

On Sunday I made a much more classic-Nicole mistake and was running late for my XC warmup. Barnmate hustled me into the warmup where TrJ told me to stay calm and that I had plenty of time. The in-gate people were hustling me along though, so TrJ sent me over the X three times, the vertical twice, the oxer twice, and the natural and sent me over to the start box. What I additionally didn’t know is that they were a) sending people to the start box so early because it was about a 4-5 minute walk to get over there and b) the starter was running early!!!! The rider behind me was already walking to the start when I left warmup, so I hustled Speedy along and trotted part of the way only to find… nobody there when I got there. The starter offered to let me go early, so I took him up on it.

I was (obviously) a bit frazzled when I left the start box, but Speedy fell right into this rhythmic, rangy canter and pulled us toward the first fence without feeling rushed or frazzled. I had gotten the minute markers from another rider while we course walked the night before, and Speedy was right on the first minute marker at fence 3. After fence 4 we had a bit of a gallop stretch, so I put my foot on the gas and Speedy was happy to pick up the pace.

His old owner braided his tail for XC but I love how expressive and full of motion it is!

I got surprised at the water, where Speedy slowed to a walk to step in. He’s always been a bit funny about water at home, but never had a problem with it out XC schooling. But he went, so I didn’t think much of it (which almost got me in trouble at Aspen).

The only thing on course that I was actually worried about was the down bank, which I am historically terrible at. But Speedy is the most reasonable and conservative creature about down banks and steps right down them so smoothly. TrJ also gave me great coaching on them when we were schooling and told me to hold on with my low calf and not my thigh (which is my instinct and that of many other riders), so that my seat could move but my base of support wouldn’t. And Speedy, true to his pattern, stepped right down.

JUST THE MOST REASONABLE

We trotted a brush fence on a downhill after the bank (I would have preferred to canter but Speedy chose a trot, and I prefer an organized trot jump to a scrambly canter jump) and then it was a pretty good uphill canter to the finish fences. Which is the best. Cantering uphill and feeling a horse fold up under you and really dig into the footing is amazing.

We were in 7th-ish after dressage. We moved up to second after stadium, and a clear fast cross country round meant we finished there as well.

While I could imagine a slightly better ending to my first show in four years (only a little bit of time separated me from the leader), finishing on my dressage score, getting a personal best, having fun the entire time, and getting a ribbon for my efforts was a pretty incredible way to get back into the game.

nomnom ribbon

Full weekend video here

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?

xc schooling, systematically

Speedy and I had a jam-packed end of March, as the Friday after we got back from Shawna Karrasch we loaded back up for a two-day cross country schooling on “the dry side” at Tulip Springs. I had a lot of farm work to catch up on, so TrJ rode Speedy during the week for me. He came back with a very good report card — his flat work is coming along, he’s getting stronger and more balanced, but TrJ would like to keep jumping him once a week because he’s just so fun.

Oh and also because he could use her help with staying soft to the fences, which I guess is fair. And in reality, it works pretty perfectly with my heinous spring farming schedule, and is exactly why I wanted to be in a program with trainer rides.

Speedy finally got a chance to groom his lesson buds, and did so with gusto throughout the weekend. He stopped looking quite so deranged and desperate after half an hour or so.

On Friday, TrJ had Speedy and I come out for a private lesson, and instructed me to give Speedy a good lunge before coming out to gauge his energy levels and get him to start listening and then bring the lunge line out in case we needed it. I used some of my Shawna strategies during my lunge, and while Speedy wasn’t totally attentive and responding to the game, he did settle in to it and looked for clicks after some gawking. Since he seemed reasonably settled, I wandered out to TrJ on course with the lunge line clipped to my belt loop.

TrJ has a pretty different cross country schooling style to the other (what, three or four total??) trainers I’ve schooled with. She had me trot Speedy around working on the same things we work on at home (bending, going forward and back, a little bit of lateral work) until he felt really, really rideable. If he broke into the canter, I was to bring him back to the trot and keep working at the trot. TrJ wanted me to be able to go forward and back within the trot without tension in his response. She even called me out at one point when I thought about maybe cantering sometime soon and Speedy stepped politely into the canter.

all the media I have from schooling is a vast collection of blurry video/screenshots, thanks to iphone and android not playing well together. i blame apple obvs. but it is a pretty cute blurry screenshot.

“Did you ask for that?” TrJ yelled at me.

I had to sheepishly admit that no, I had not, and she instructed me to return to the trot. TrJ also had me trot around and between all the different fences, letting Speedy see them from all angles. At one point we trotted alongside between two fences, one of which TrJ was sitting on, and Speedy stiffened his neck against me. TrJ asked me why he did that. I thought it was Speedy telling me he was uncomfortable/uncertain. In this case, I thought it was because he wasn’t sure what I was asking him to do, or what I might ask him to do. Was he going to have to jump that fence again in a minute? TrJ agreed that it had to do with Speedy’s discomfort and lack of understanding, so told me to revisit any fences he stiffened at like that until he could stay soft around them. It never took more than a second pass by a fence for Speedy to stay on task and with me.

After an eternity at the trot (okay probably like 15-18 minutes), TrJ said that Speedy looked like he was ready to canter, and I desperately was. So we repeated it all at the canter. One thing I didn’t do as much, and TrJ didn’t push me on it, was ask Speedy to go forward in the canter. I didn’t know how much zip I would get in the canter, and this horse has taught me more than any other that I absolutely am not stronger than a horse. So I wanted to keep us both in control, and if that meant not opening up his canter too much in an open space, that was just fine with me.

We did, eventually, jump. But we warmed up (at the trot and canter) for probably 25-35 minutes, way way longer than I’ve ever warmed up for XC before, especially just schooling. TrJ let me know that her plan was to take Speedy over all the various elements that Tulip had to offer and see what he remembers and what he needs to work on.

Speedy was exactly as brave and forward to the fences as I remembered, and didn’t take a second look at anything. But he did get tense, pull, and fling himself over the fences from the very beginning. Sometimes he over-jumped, sometimes he just surged to the fence, but almost all of those first jumps involved Speedy breaking tempo, ignoring my half halts, putting his nose up, and doing exactly what he wanted. TrJ had me keep circling back to the same log at the trot, focusing on keeping the tempo and keeping him on the bit as best I could, until Speedy started to jump softly, in tempo, lifting through his withers.

blurry smudge demonstrates signature Speedy stag sproink

Next, we strung a few fences together. And every time Speedy got tense and rushed to the fences I just came back to the trot as quickly as I could and circled back to the fence at the trot. I don’t remember it taking more than one circle at any fence in a string to get a softer jump out of Speedy.

I’ve never had a coach on cross country make such a point of getting a calm, quiet response to every fence. Usually over-jumping and pulling is laughed off as great enthusiasm, maybe the horse jumps the fence once more, and then everyone moves right along. TrJ has talked to me at length at home about how rideable she wants all her horses (Speedy included), and I’ve seen her dig into other students about getting their horse rideable and responding correctly. Having Speedy approach each fence steadily and quietly, and jump each fence softly and with correct form, is an important element of that rideability. Speedy’s signature stag-leap is not a good habit to be jumping in. It might be the response that he’s “most comfortable” with, but our goal is to reprogram that response into something more reasonable, more stick-able, and less prone to scare the shit out of Speedy (or me!) when we start jumping bigger fences.

And how do we reprogram that response? More reps of jumping fences correctly, instead of in bambi-mode.

one of my favourite things about overnights with horses is morning coffee + grazing time

TrJ also introduced us to some technical elements (banks, ditches, sunken road) really systematically, which really came as no surprise after the way she approached us jumping a simple log on the ground. We took extra time at the banks to make sure Speedy and I were both on the same page, since I told TrJ right up front that I’m terrible at down banks. TrJ had me grip with my lower calf — none of this lean-back nonsense that I’ve gotten from every other trainer ever — rather than my thighs, and Speedy helped me out by being the most reasonable and conservative down-bank-dropper ever. Love him.

Our private school was long, and we covered pretty much every jump I was comfortable with that was out there. I kept expecting TrJ to say “that was good, let’s end it there for him” because that often happens in our lessons after Speedy and I complete an exercise well. But we kept on trucking along, and Speedy got more and more rideable and more and more sensible throughout the day.

hopefully someday soon I’ll learn to ride my horse AND grab mane?

On Saturday we rode in a group, and Speedy came out both more relaxed and more amped. On Friday, he felt nervous-new-place-what’s-going-on rushy. On Saturday, he felt strong-happy-friends-are-here-I-love-this-game rushy. But, he was responding to my clicks and looking for treats way more on Saturday. At several points he wouldn’t graze, but he did turn to me for a carrot, so that was neat.

Again, we schooled very systematically. Speedy was much more reasonable on approach to the fences, and TrJ noted that his tendency to stiffen, pull, and stag leap came when I was softening too much on approach to the fence. (Which is exactly what I do at home, and exactly what I’ve been dinged for as a rider for a decade so…. maybe I’ll finally break that habit?) TrJ reminded me to keep riding Speedy to the base of each fence, and I worked on staying effective and supportive in that ride (rather than chasing/driving).

We cantered more fences on Saturday too! But the same rules applied. If Speedy hollowed, pulled, and ignored my half halt, I just had to circle him back around and come to the fence again. It’s a bit easier for me to manage him in the canter, because it’s a gait I’m more effective in. Also, I put my stirrups up a few holes and was actually making contact with the knee blocks on my saddle, which was astonishingly helpful. Weird, how equipment works best when you use it as intended.

Overall, a really good outing for both of us, though I probably got more out of it than Speedy did. Speedy is still as confident and fun on cross country as the horse who convinced me to buy him at the geländeplatz. He’s SO game (seriously, not an ounce of refusal or balk in him out there) and so enthusiastic. I want to hold on to that, even while we rebuild his habits to be a bit more reasonable. TrJ is so organized, I can actually see a path for us to get that rideability out there. Which on its own feels pretty amazing, after floundering around in my riding for the last few years.

We will definitely need a few more outings before I feel show-worthy, which might be hard to wrangle with the spring schedule, but we’ll get there!

shawna karrasch, part two

Sunday morning dawned clear and warm in comparison to Saturday (up to 47F from a thrilling 42F, which is lovely when you’re watching a clinic), and I took Speedy for a little walk and round pen run in the morning before our session. I clicked a bit for Speedy trotting and cantering when I asked, but I also let him stare out of the round pen and do his own thing a fair bit too.

Speedy came into the arena ready to play again, and Shawna walked me through the steps we would take to do A-to-Bs. First, we made sure Speedy was catching on to the target with Shawna. Once he realized that Shawna would give him treats AND let him play with the toy, he was right there. Then Shawna would say “ready? okay!” so that I knew she was about to send Speedy, and point toward me. After that, it was my responsibility to be as exciting as possible to get Speedy to join me.

targeting right before sending Speedy back to Shawna

After realizing that the person who had just sent him (and subsequently gone unresponsive) wasn’t going to be very interesting, Speedy was happy to head over to the other person and play with them instead. I love how much he loves people, and the more I’ve been clicker training with him the more he seems to want to engage with me, not just nibble on/mouth me.

I immediately saw application for this game at shows. Managing Speedy’s energy in a productive way away from home is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Lunging can be a great tool, but not all horses calm down and relax during lunging, especially in chaotic show environments. I also need something that helps me keep calm and engaged (a big realization I made during this clinic), so playing a game with Speedy in a lunging area rather than just sending him in circles and worrying about his responses to the outside world is going to be super helpful for me.

Speedy did not believe Shawna could possibly ignore his cuteness. She has a steel will.

Lots of clinic participants had questions about clicker training under saddle, and I really wanted to tack up and get on Speedy and do some clicking under saddle. Less so we could learn or demonstrate anything specific, but because I wanted Speedy to collect some clicks under saddle in a new place. So it worked out perfectly for me to tack up after lunch and come back ready to ride in my second session.

Luckily for me, when we got into the arena, Meika was turning out the resident horses at Polestar. Speedy was fascinated… and a little aroused. I let him stare out of the arena as the horse before us finished up, clicking when he would check back in with me or respond to me asking him to bring his head around with a direct rein aid. But he definitely wasn’t really with me, which he made clear by trotting off a few times and spinning to orient himself back toward the horses outside of the arena. I felt a little of that rising adrenaline that comes as fear just starts to softly grip me, and focused myself on what I could do. Could I ask Speedy to woah and click for that? No, not really. Could I click for him putting his head down? Surprisingly, yes. Could I let him look out of the arena to explore his environment and then redirect the energy back inward? Sometimes.

this gif slowed down in processing somehow, but this was a really adorable and enthusiastic walk responses from Speedy

Shawna asked us what we had been working on lately, and I responded with our process on the woah aid and asking Speedy to lower his head in response to rein pressure. So she set up a couple of targets so we could work on woah, clicking Speedy for slowing his motion as he approached the target rather than for actually touching the target.

Once we got into the game and Speedy realized Shawna was playing target with him, he completely forgot about the outside horses and focused inward on the game. It was awesome. I have never been able to successfully redirect any of my horses’ attention that quickly, from the ground or under saddle. And even though Shawna told me to just be a passenger and let her click and feed Speedy for the beginning of the game, I calmed down immediately. I’ve been thinking about this a ton since the clinic, since clearly my ability to manage my horse’s attention and energy in an environment is going to be affected by my own energy there.

I love how curious he looks here

Speedy was a great demo horse for clicker training under saddle. I had just charged up the actual clicker for him the night before (as mentioned previously, I usually use a tongue cluck a la Elisa Wallace) and under saddle the clicker itself was meaningless to him. So I paired the click with the cluck for him to start connecting them under saddle. Speedy also lost all the context for what the target meant when Shawna wasn’t with it, and instead tried to follow Shawna around. This required a little creativity on Shawna’s part to set him up for success. Once he did get that what he was playing with was the target, he immediately started to swing his head back to me after a cluck to get his reward…. after he took a moment to enjoy himself mauling the target a bit first.

The session wasn’t terribly productive in terms of solidifying or making progress on Speedy’s woah aid. However, it was very productive to help him start to play with targets under saddle, which will definitely be a piece I use to help us with other movements. And even more, it showed me just how much I can draw Speedy’s focus back into the arena with targets and games.

This is something I’ve struggled with at home, especially when things change outside the indoor arena doors Speedy is desperate to look at them and doesn’t always want to come back and refocus his attention on work. And who can blame him? But if I can make work more like games, I think Speedy will rejoin me much more readily.

It’s funny; I’ve been into clicker training for a long time now, but it took until this clinic for me to realize how much clicker training would benefit me in addition to my horse. Not just in having a better behaved horse, but by giving me a way to exert control over my environment and create predictability in strange settings. I’m training myself while I’m training my horse. It’s fricking genius. And it’s also exactly what I need.

shawna karrasch, part one

You know when you meet someone and you immediately just want to spend more time with them, soaking in everything they have to say and everything you can learn from them and be their best friend forever and ever? That’s how I felt meeting nad working with Shawna Karrasch this weekend.

I’ve known about Shawna for a long time, but for some reason never bothered to delve too deeply into the prolific content she has created around R+ training in horses. What a fool past Nicole was. There is so, so, so much that Murray would have benefitted from in Shawna’s work (and other R+ trainers who have a systematic method) and I was too busy being a ding dong thinking I could solve it all with our *~!magical relationship!~*

I mean, it was magical, in its own way

On Friday, Speedy and I loaded up for a 5-ish hour haul just north of Seattle to the beautiful Polestar Farm for the clinic. I got a late start, but it took me about as long to load and organize the trailer as I thought it would, so I’m glad I’m accurate on that front at least. Speedy loaded compliantly like he always does, and then immediately couldn’t take any treats or eat any hay in the trailer like he always does. Minus a bit of crummy traffic just north of Seattle it was smooth sailing and an easy haul that I expect I will do again.

I’ve been thinking about and prepping for this clinic for weeks. There is so much I want to work on and improve with Speedy, but there’s truly only so much you can do in a weekend. I was also completely torn between my innate desperation to be a “good student” and be a good demo horse for the clinic and “do well”, and to actually accept my horse where he was and work with and learn from that.

Luckily for me, Speedy’s clicker-learning was progressing in leaps and bounds in the week-ish before the clinic, and I felt very prepared going in. I knew that Speedy was well conditioned to the bridge (I cluck instead of clicking, but have subsequently trained him on the clicker also), he was started on liberty leading, and was getting there on target training. So as long as Speedy didn’t show up and forget all of his bridge conditioning, I knew we’d be able to make good headway.

Also luckily for me, Shelby took these incredible photos and I just adore them!!

I also knew that even if Speedy did show up super shy and without any bridge conditioning, we’d be able to make headway with that too. A big piece of what I need to work on with Speedy is how he disengages, becomes aloof, and retreats inside himself when he is anxious. On the ground, this seems to mostly manifest as desperately finding the nearest patch of grass or hay to nosh away madly. But under saddle it means I lose all rideability, and I’m not sure how I’m going to show this horse without rideability.

The clinic format involved a lecture on Saturday morning, a first session with the horses on Saturday afternoon, then two horse sessions on Sunday. Speedy came out ready to learn on Saturday. Shawna had asked what I wanted to work on with him, and I said he would likely come into the arena approaching threshold and redirecting his attention away from me, so I wanted to focus on bringing his attention back to me and keeping him engaged with me in a relaxed and positive way. Speedy was a little wide-eyed when we first walked into the arena, but I think the presence of the crowd actually really comforted him. Speedy LOVES people, probably second only to grass. I clicked and treated him for standing by me and practicing our default behavior (look away) while we waited for Shawna to finish up with the horse before us.

As we talked about the behaviors I wanted to shape in Speedy, Shawna commented that he really didn’t look like he was at or over threshold, and I agreed. The crowd, the clicker games, and the inviting arena meant Speedy was really not that worried about what was going on. (This delighted me because it meant my plan was working – more on that later.) Since I wanted to click for relaxed engagement but not encourage Speedy to start crawling into my pocket, Shawna suggested we work on another activity so I could capture the elements of engagement with me that I wanted.

Speedy made a new bff in stabling also

So we started working on liberty leading and having Speedy stick with me, not wander off to do his own thing, and stay on my right hand side. Shawna directed me to click for tiny elements of engagement — a flick of the ear toward me, or when Speedy directed an eye toward me but didn’t turn his head. That little piece was key. I wanted him directing his attention toward me without swinging his head or body parts into me. Horses don’t need to curl around you to pay attention to you. And now that I think more about it, I actually want Speedy looking around and taking in his environment so he can process everything around him, but I also want him paying attention to me.

Shortly after taking his halter off, Speedy wandered away from me to stare out over the arena wall at the turnouts. I stopped and watched him, and Shawna told me to keep walking and click for him following me. She didn’t want me to get drawn into his distraction, but keep on having a good time doing whatever I was doing and reward Speedy for making the choice to be with me. This first trot back toward me ended up with Speedy greeting some of the auditors. Excellently, when I continued on to keep “having fun” somewhere else, Speedy chose to join me there also. Shawna reminded me not to click as soon as he started walking, but click once he got into position by my side. I didn’t want to reward him for just moving, once again I wanted to reward him for moving with me.

This is the “disengaged not listening to you” look that I’ve come to recognize in the hony

After greeting the auditors, Speedy had a big standing shake and it was like he shook off all his worries and exuberantly ran up to me for his next click. There was a little play rear and some other cavorting, and he disappeared again to have a little canter around me in a 20m circle. I haven’t taught him to free lunge, so it was very funny to me that his play took that form. After a few circles he came right back to me, and we recommenced the liberty leading.

Shortly, Speedy realized that I wasn’t going to be playing his games and if he wanted treats he needed to be along side me playing my games. Turning right was easy, because it involved me stepping into his space and getting closer to him. Turning left was a bit sillier, since Speedy would shake his head and trot up to me once he realised I’d stepped away. Since his energy was up, Shawna told me to then wait for him to relax and check in with me before clicking and treating.

The session probably lasted about 20 minutes, which is longer than I would usually do for a focused session trying to shape a specific behavior, but is pretty on par for the fun/play sessions Speedy and I do. Speedy definitely brought his focus more toward me as we continued, though certainly part of that was due to becoming more comfortable in the environment. One super neat part of this was that I tried a new behavior in the liberty leading — slowing down — and Speedy was right there with me walking slowly and keeping an eye on me.

These incredible photos of my FUCKING ADORABLE horse with Shawna are also hugely reinforcing

I got some great clicks from Shawna myself, as she told me “good girl!” for my timing several times. “Good girl” or “clever girl” are hugely rewarding for me, I love it when people I respect say that. Yes, I am a bitch, through and through.

The lesson itself was also very validating for me. I knew I wanted to get Speedy more engaged and active with me but also relaxed, but I hadn’t quite figured out how I wanted to do that. So to have Shawna agree that I wanted to aim for this (and give me a plan of how to do it) was super. Having Shawna agree with my assessment that Speedy wasn’t really at threshold confirmed my own read of my horse, which was another good thing to hear.

I also loved that I showed up to this lesson really well-prepared. It felt so good that the goals I set for Speedy were things that were achievable, useful, and productive in the time we had. It was also fantastic for Speedy to have such a fun and positive experience in a new place! Sometimes I worry that hauling him out for lessons, which are inevitably rather tough because he’s distracted and being asked to do things that aren’t his strengths, is not a very rewarding experience for him. But clicker games away from home proved to be very rewarding for both of us!

honeymoon two

Speedy and I are a little bit different than your typical new-horse-lyweds. We had our pre-honeymoon in California while MIL was working with him regularly and I got to learn how to ride him a bit. Rather than taking a few months of bliss before I unraveled all of his lovely training we got right down to business on that front, and I couldn’t really access any of it without gadgets.

total cheater angle on this screen grab but how cute is this creature seriously (also wtf why are my screenshots SOOO TALL)

We probably accelerated things with TrJ’s plan for getting Speedy really rideable and broke, which takes a fairly different route than MIL’s (much more dressage-focused training) and pushes some buttons that Speedy had convinced me to leave alone. Suffice to say all the beautiful dressage training was gone before day one. The jump training too — we’re doing some rewiring so things have been getting messy.

but also sometimes we miss and fly Air Speedy, oops

Seven weeks later it’s coming back, and I think we’re actually in a stronger position than before. Not only can Speedy get round and hold my hand in the connection a bit, he’s quicker and quicker to go there as a first resort rather than flip his head in the air and insist PONY KNOWS BEST. Maybe even more importantly, he’s letting me get in and change his body and put aids on and rebalance and all those things.

So in that regard, we really skipped the honeymoon (or maybe MIL got it all?) and dove right into getting thoroughly sick of one another and trying to figure out how to make our lives together. (But I am LOVING the TrJ lessons and path and am so so so glad I found her.)

new boots are hony approved

On the personality and getting-to-know-you front though, it’s been as honeymooney as you could imagine. In some ways Speedy is exactly the same as he was in California. He still loves people, still loves to put everything he can reach in his mouth, and love scritches in all the good spots. It did take me a little while for Speedy to relax enough to actually enjoy scritches again, but now that he’s settled in he’s absolutely not shy of telling me where the good spots are (right now mostly behind his shoulders where his new coat is coming in aggressively, and between his butt cheeks/upper inner thigh).

I figured out that he’s not a huge fan of the indoor barn-attached-to-arena life. Speedy was originally stalled on the arena-side of the barn aisle, and he spent a lot of time staring toward the arena semi-tense when there were horses in there. Once we moved him across to the other side of the barn aisle a whole bunch of other slightly-concerning things cleared up as well, like intermittent diarrhea (some totally normal poops and some just…. basically diarrhea) and higher-than-expected spookiness.

more honest representation of where we are on the flat right now — still a good moment picked from a long video, but there are so many more moments like this than before!!

Speedy will dump his water bucket every night if it’s left on the ground, so we clipped his up on the wall. However, if you do leave a bucket of water on the ground he prefers to drink from that one. Sorry, friend. You make poor choices with ground water. Also, won’t eat soaked hay pellets but will eat wheat bran mash poured over his beet pulp and ration balancer. Also also, will tip a full feed pan on occasion for no reason. Oh and homeboy is extremely well hydrated and pees to match it — his stall is always absurdly messy for such a small horse.

slurps with joy

Hony will be absolutely quiet in turnout with his head down grazing as long as there is at least one other horse out there. Doesn’t matter which horse, any horse will do. Buddy horse being stupid? No problem, Speedy got grass. Also, he will graze happily with the leadrope slung over his back without moving anywhere fast if there’s someone in view. Love that But if he realizes he’s alone the panic shenanigans come out in full force and shoes will be pulled. Speedy and the farrier are fast friends right (actually, new farrier is fast friends with all the horses at our barn right now!!).

And I imagine there are so many more discoveries to come, of course.

This weekend we take our second adventure together since Speedy came home. Today I drive North of Seattle to attend a Shawna Karrasch clicker training clinic and I am SO EXCITED. I’ve been signed up for this clinic for three months and signed up literally the moment it opened.

He’s pretty good company so it’s not onerous to get him out to “hand” graze.

I’m so excited that Speedy’s clicker training basics are pretty strong so we can get into some fun stuff with Shawna. I have a whole list of things I want to work on with him and we absolutely will not be able to touch on most of them in one weekend. But it will be so good to work with her and get some homework!

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

the slow way

I forgot what it’s like having your own horse to train. It is…. way more emotional than riding lease horses. Especially half lease horses. But it also gives me soooo much more control than I could ever have sharing a horse with someone else, and that is pretty precious.

Speedy and I have 3 lessons a week with TrJ, and they are solid, intense lessons. So I have no qualms about taking things easy on non-lesson days: trail riding, hacking, and clicker training. Solidifying what we work on with TrJ and smoothing out the lumps and bumps that are inevitably so much bigger when we’re not under her watchful eye. Which is how I found myself doing nothing but walking last Sunday, working on nothing but picking up the connection and helping Speedy understand that dumping his entire body mass onto his underneck is simply not necessary (or allowed, really).

it is *so* attractive

I know that Speedy’s reaction when I pick up the reins is a symptom of bigger problems — he’s pretty weak about yielding to pressure in general — and a big part of our connection issues. I don’t think he’s being rude or naughty. I think he literally does not understand the response I’m looking for when I pick up the reins. So he responds the way his little sausage-pony instincts demand, which is to assume the sausage-pony shape and go from there.

I have touched on this before, and once I’ve got my thoughts organized plan to expand on it, but I also really don’t think Speedy has a good concept of learning. When you ask him to do something different or new he leans heavily on the one response he’s really confident in: going faster. And when that doesn’t work, he might try going backwards or possibly stopping or putting something in his mouth to chomp on it. Other than those four things, though, not a lot on offer from the little guy. It’s weird.

would prefer more of this

So we walk. You know I love a good click and treat, so I started tackling this on the ground, asking Speedy to yield to the pressure of the halter or bridle and then clicking and treating heavily when he tucked his nose in or brought it around. There was a good bit of that underneck-jutty-chin resistance to yielding to halter pressure at first, too. It was like Speedy wanted to push his chin into my hand or the halter or noseband when I asked him to yield — despite the rest of his face being in the way. So there was a lot of bad habit-resistance to break through.

The chin-up response is so, so, so thoroughly entrenched under saddle. On Sunday we walked for a long time. And the ugliness and resistance and chin jutting did not decrease quickly, despite the ample treats. Speedy actually started resisting me for longer to the left, though he was very quick to yield and soften to the right. I think this was a bit of an extinction burst, since he did suddenly start to yield to the left and even lean on my hands when I would pick up the reins. Time will tell.

mmm yep just as unattractive from behind – especially with whatever weirdo shit I’m doing with my body

We had three more lessons this week and a trainer ride, so plenty of heavy work and learning for the Speedy creature. It seems like reprogramming Speedy’s response to the reins is starting to work, since our flatwork this week was the best it has ever been.

This weekend, we’ll walk. I want him to positively dive into my hands when I pick up the reins. I want his response to soften to the rein to be even more strongly entrenched than the chin-jutting. And I will hopefully have many opportunities to click and treat and reward the hony for his beautiful, correct, and sweet yielding to the reins. I just know it.

The slow way. It’s the fast way.

one more really attractive pony picture for good measure