hand waving & flag flapping

After my meeting with Cowboy Dave I promptly zipped up to Seattle for a day and Switzerland/Germany for four. It was a quick work trip (my first! so exciting!), and gave me plenty of time to mull over my horsemanship lesson in between strolling through Zurich and cycling around Konstanz.

I got home on Monday and knew I wouldn’t be riding, what with the jet lag. But I headed out to see Murray and play with my new tools a little.

We don’t have the same type of whip at the barn that Dave does, but we do have a long dressage whip (maybe one of those ground whips that they use for piaffe?) with a small piece of caution tape tied to the end. This posed the perfect new problem for Murray. He had never seen the “flag” before, and I was pretty sure he would not be a fan. I was correct.

I worked on the basic-est of basics that Dave started with Murray. I waved the flag around behind me and tried to release every time Murray was standing still. I waved the flag over my head, and Murray was not the biggest fan of that. But he got over that too. Then I started bringing the flag over toward Murray’s side. He skipped to the side, and I got a bit lost. I needed him to stand still so I could remove the pressure, but I couldn’t¬†get¬†him to stand still with the flag anywhere near his side.

(At this point I’m like oh. you went too fast. So point taken, babier steps next time.)

please, no touching

Murray was very interested in looking at and touching the flag, and I let him. But ultimately, I wanted him to pay less attention to the flag and pay attention to me. I tried to remove the flag when he flicked his attention back toward me, but all of his body language said “I’m not comfortable with that flag near me.” His body was bent away from the flag, and his head and neck were craned around like he was physically going to shield his shoulders from the Evil Plastic.

On Tuesday I was struck down mightily by Evil Travel Sickness, and was literally bedridden for much of Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday night, I was lamenting to friends about the bullshit schedule I have this fall that means I’m looking at a little more than 4 weeks available for riding between now and the end of the year. Megan told me to stop being dumb and ride my horse, because I can still make valuable progress in the connection over four weeks.

So on Thursday I went out to ride my horse. But first — flag games!

Thursday the game was a little more lackluster. Murray was not scared of the flag — hooray! — but he was also less interested in playing the game with me.


he¬†did ground tie pretty successfully though. wow, he’s really not at his most magnificent right now.

When I went to walk backward and draw him toward me he planted and let his neck stretch out to ridiculous lengths. I stuck with what Dave said and gave him more time (not more pressure), but I’ve played that game with Murray and I do not have the patience that he has. So instead I asked another way (turned around and walked with him beside me), which worked better. (If you have experience with this type of thing, you should tell me about it. I have no fucking clue what broke there.)

I also played around with the pressure/release concept during tacking up. I did not abandon the treats, but I did add pressure (girth) and take it away a couple of times while we were standing in the aisle. I’m not sure it did anything, really, but I wanted to reinforce the idea that the pressure comes and goes away.

And then I rode, and he felt awesome!

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get with the program

One huge, different thing about my new barn is that now Murray and I are in a¬†program. It’s not oppressive, but it’s there.

It’s not what I thought of when I (naiively) imagined a “program”. It’s not hallways of monogrammed trunks all in the same color and uniform saddle pads and a military requirement to buy that barn’s preferred brand of high end saddle. It’s not horses being fed up (or down) at the trainer’s discretion, without the option for preferred supplements or feed, or a requirement to be in training n-days per week or lessons m-days per month.

first day in blankies, with a new friend!

But there is a system. There are a few types of feed the barn gives to all horses there at least twice a day (a ration balancer), and they work with you to add in more calories or energy as necessary. They decide what pasture your horse is going to go in (with your input, if you have it) and make adjustments to smaller or bigger pastures as needed. The other day it was cold, drizzly, and foggy for the first time and when I got to the barn Murray was blankied up and happily out in pasture with his new friends. They didn’t ask, they just put on the turnout I’d provided and sent him out to do his thing. If someone needs the vet, they call the vet out and are there for the appointment. They’re there for you, but don’t necessarily force you into their mold.

One thing is absolutely true though: every horse at this barn is impeccably behaved.

with a couple of, uh, notable exceptions…

So after had the vet out to look at Murray’s strange lameness and he was about as tolerant of flexions as you’d expect (read: not very), Trainer J and I took a minute to chat about the plan moving forward. Murray flexed slightly positive on the right hind, and the vet thought that his hocks and joints were probably feeling crummy after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Vet wanted me to get him back into work for a few weeks, then recheck and think about hock injections. Since I don’t have a billion dollars to throw at this problem, and my fall schedule is so spotty and strange, I wanted to develop a plan with Trainer J and get her thoughts.

What she said first surprised me. Trainer J wanted Murray to get into horsemanship lessons before we threw joint juice at him, and before we got into regular lessons.¬† She said that he’s spoiled, and that his current behavioral programming bordered on dangerous. The conversation went other places, and we covered all the bases I wanted to. Trainer J wasn’t mean or cruel about it, but she was pretty matter of fact: if I want to be in the program, Murray would have to get in it too. She said I needed to get her horsemanship guy, Cowboy Dave, out as soon as possible. Like the next morning, if he’d do it.

Murray is getting way better at walking past the Scary Hoop Houses, and loves being out in the field!

So we’re in trainer-mandated Cowboy therapy. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t hurt a bit to hear that Murray’s ground manners aren’t up to snuff. Even though it comes as absolutely no surprise¬†to me. Or anyone who has read this blog for any period of time. It’s just one of those things that always triggers a ton¬†of emotion in me.

I’m very open to change and learning new ways, so this isn’t a bad thing to me. But being in such a clear program is certainly different. At my old barn, all the horses were held to a much lower standard of behavior (basically: can you go in and out of pasture safely), and beyond that it was the owner’s problem to handle manners. For good or ill. I get the feeling that a lot of places are like that.

What do you prefer? More management hands on or more management hands off? Feeding and turnout only, or have them handle everything? If you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said¬†hands off!


don’t talk to me just gimme dem carrots

But… I like the way the horses are here. They’re¬†happy.¬†The cowboy teaches them super well and is a great human teacher also. It’s probably a really, really good thing that they have a dedicated person to go to, to help horses and people communicate. But I also feel like this could definitely go the wrong way…. if all the horses are required to work with a horsemanship person who isn’t so fair, talented, or gentle.

This program seems awesome. I’m super glad I found it, and I think it will help us both become better versions of ourselves.

half halts part 25748

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

the widest hind legs he’s ever hind legged!

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

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

word noodles

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

just say NO to outside reins

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

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

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

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

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

shake it off

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


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

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

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


“problem solving”

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

not like this. this is not bearing down.

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

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

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

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

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

little miss smarty pants

Another day, another ride on MBM that just blows me away.¬† This mare is seriously the Goldilocks of project rides for me.¬† She’s sensitive, but not so sensitive that I feel out-horsed or like I’m not sure what to do with her.¬† And she’s just so dang smart that things stick really well, and I can really feel the progress from week to week. It’s shocking that just a month (and less than 15 rides) ago I was cow-kicking her around in a circle smack in the center of the arena because we couldn’t work anywhere else without getting glued to the wall.¬†She is a rare “baby” horse who makes me feel like I’m a pretty okay rider.

classic MBM — one ear always listening

MBM has continued to struggle with her left lead canter.¬† She seemed a bit mentally blocked about it under saddle, since she could pick it up pretty much every time on the lunge line.¬† But I’ve also been predominantly working her right side, and encouraging her to get her right shoulder under her, so maybe that had something to do with it. Her problem is also a bit two-fold: when you ask for the canter she wants to TROTROTROTROTROTROTROT instead, and then her inclination is to jump into the right lead.¬† So it’s not the easiest transition to manage.

On Tuesday I took her for a quick spin on the lunge line to get us both thinking about canter transitions before hopping on for a quick ride.¬† MBM got them every time on the line again, so I resolved to just keep kissing until she picked up the left lead.¬† Of course my first kiss attempt led MBM to leap into the right lead canter, so I transitioned back to trot and slowed us down to get organized for the transition.¬† Somehow in the process of getting us organized I sat for a beat and let my left hip swoop forward and BOOM — awesome left canter transition.

i mean, not every horse can be blessed with these magical canter transitions

I popped up in the stirrups and gave the mare lots of praise, then down transitioned and tried it again. Boom.¬† Another awesome canter transition.¬† I seriously didn’t even have to move my outside leg back, just the light sweeping of my seat into the motion of canter set her going.¬† Same thing to the right.¬† Sit for a beat, sweep the right hip forward and MAJIK.¬† To the right it was even more magical because it helped me and MBM keep her shoulder underneath her and the right canter was¬†gorgeous and¬†balanced.

On Wednesday I hopped on her again to do the same thing.¬† While the hip-swoop is an awesome, quiet canter transition cue, it’s not really a cue that most people are familiar with, so I want to get MBM used to the idea that someone might put their leg back (and not ask for her haunches to move over) as well.¬† She was a little more annoyed and swishy because we went into the arena with two other horses, and it is deeply offensive to see other horses nearby but not be allowed to talk to them or spend time with them.¬† But once again, the canter was right there.

There was a little more durm¬†und¬†strang in this ride, as I decided to work on transitions on a circle (canter 3/4 circle, trot 1/4, canter 3/4, &c.) and that was not appreciated very much.¬† It seems that MBM didn’t like the amount of direction she was getting from me — she can still be a bit broodmare-y sometimes and doesn’t think that little pipsqueaks such as myself get to have opinions.¬† And that’s okay.¬† I kept at it, and we did the things, even if the circles were ever-increasing in size and egg-shaped.¬†¬†And sometimes you just have to push a little bit.

You know what we didn’t have to fight or discuss at all this week?¬† Keeping her right shoulder underneath her, or walking on the rail, or changing directions between circles.¬† Those things were a big deal last week, and now they’re just things MBM can do.


another mom-bod who is feeling much happier after unloading 9 sucking parasites

We’ll need to start thinking seriously about rhythm within gaits next.¬† MBM tends to speed up or slow down as her whims direct, especially around the transitions.¬† Pretty much every training challenge we’ve come across has been so different from Murray — he had two clear canter leads when I got to him, his canter was one of his stronger gaits, and he’s always been pretty rhythmic, if lazy — so it’s a learning experience for both of us!

new baby horses, new lessons

Murray has been on post-injection stall rest for a few days, so I’ve been riding some of trainer B’s sales/training/baby horses for fun. ¬†I mean, it was also one of my summer “plans“. ¬†So ya know.

Ponyboy was actually real cute this weekend when I took him out for a handwalk. We walked all over the arena and back and forth over the scary, terrifying, horse-eating tarp. I unhooked the leadrope to let him roll, but Murray continued to just follow me around, including back and forth over the tarp!  Totally at liberty.  Like, please, horse: tug on my heart strings some more.

And man. ¬†It’s been a while since I’ve had really prolonged contact with really green/baby horses. ¬†I forgot about all the baby horse things. ¬†Like, walking literally on top of me when I ask them to step up toward the tacking up area. ¬†Or walking at a snail’s pace and literally making me¬†drag them in from the pasture. ¬†(WHY baby horse, WHY? I give you carrots in the barn?!)

But they are good teachers — almost always. ¬†You just have to listen.¬† Here are some of my recent lessons.

awwwwh look at da baby murray!

you catch more flies with honey

Baby horses don’t know things. Like, sometimes they don’t know¬†any of the things. And there’s only so much beating¬†dragging one can do of a horse who just doesn’t know what the hell is expected of him. ¬†I have some pretty strict expectations when it comes to ground manners in the horses I’m working with. ¬†I realized that this is SUPER LAUGHABLE, since my horse has something like the second worst ground manners on Earth. ¬†But in all honesty, when he’s in a non-stressful situation he knows how to behave around a human — even if he doesn’t¬†want to do it. ¬†The really green horses I’ve worked with have conveniently forgotten all of their racetrack manners — and I know they had them. ¬†I try my hardest not to let them get away with bad behavior (easy, because I seem to use up all of my patience and tolerance on my own horse), and frequently praise the good behavior verbally, as well as with pats and carrots.

auto-narration of my exploits

Because I’m nearly constantly praising or scolding the young horses, I find that I’m nearly constantly talking to them. I kinda like this auto-narration of my rides and ground work. ¬†Not only does it make me feel super important (hah), but it also keeps me thinking about what we’re doing, instead of letting me mindlessly slip into bad habits.

this track pic is so murray
photog: murray/ricothefreako, look at the camera, these are your sale pics!
murray/recothefreako: there’s a thing over there!!

my expecations are way higher now

I used to get on baby horses or other peoples’ horses and let them flop around on a loose rein and be like “wow, they are so cute!” ¬†And I still do that now… kinda. ¬†But then I pick up the reins and ask them for a little bit more. ¬†I don’t need¬†alot,¬†I just need them to put themselves together a little bit. ¬†This seems to be the part where most of the baby horses are like WOAH WHAT.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a horse to learn to start stretching laterally and longitudinally, using their back, and not falling through their shoulders. ¬†I mean, obviously not all at once. ¬†And not for long periods of time. ¬†But these are things that sport horses need to learn. ¬†And we can chip away at them one step at a time.

These days it drives me nuts when a horse responds to what I consider a relatively simple aid by doing the exact opposite (yield to the inside rein =/= stick out your jaw and lean on my hand). ¬†Or even not doing it at all. ¬†DON’T YOU KNOW I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU, BABY HORSES?!

It’s no longer acceptable to me to take no for an answer to these requests. ¬†I do my level best not to be mean about it, and to praise mightily (see above) when I get what I want. ¬†I even back off if the question I’m asking is too hard or incomprehensible. ¬†Every ride I’m putting on these horses is training them one way or the other, and I don’t want to train them that “no” is an okay response to a reasonable request.

the training scale

This thing is golden and was has lasted forever for a reason. ¬†If we’ve got nothing, I know where I need to start: rhythm. ¬†On the flip side, it makes me wonder how some of the older horses I’ve ridden have gotten away so long without this crucial skill…


baby horse goes jump jump

distance makes the heart grow fonder

Riding babies makes me think of nothing so much as how badly I just want my own horse back.  Murray know how to do all the things I want, just the way I want them, pretty much when I want them.  I love you and miss you Murray.  Feel 100% REAL QUICK plz.