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.

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word noodles

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

just say NO to outside reins

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

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

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

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

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

shake it off

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


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

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

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


“problem solving”

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

not like this. this is not bearing down.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

crunchy hippy granola groundwork

My background in clicker training and positive reinforcement training of all kinds of animals (dogs, cats, macaques, giraffes, eland, elephants, horses, chimpanzees, zebras, tigers, gorillas… that’s basically the list) may make my dismissive attitude towards Natural Horsemanship (the type with the capital N and H) a little surprising.  Honestly, I don’t know a ton about Natural Horsemanship, and I would probably learn a lot from the philosophy if I gave it the old College Try.  But I’ve seen a few choices videos that don’t quite make sense, and my general inclination to avoid any one “doctrine” in training my horse (or doing anything) makes me shy away from the plan.

a curiously difficult species to clicker train

What I do like is the antecedent-behavior-consequence sequence that I can usually find in many other animal behavior modification programs.  Since I’ve recently been taking a more serious approach to ground work, this now plays an even larger portion in my interactions with Murray.  (Which is stupid, really, since behavior modification happens constantly, including under saddle. But it’s much easier to see, and evaluate, from the ground than the saddle.)

As with all things in horses/my life, I jumped in way too deep to start with and became frustrated that Murray couldn’t shoulder-in with me on the ground and wanted to run away from me or run in circle.  So (for once!) I stepped back, looked in to some really basic exercises, and committed to doing those until I could call them done.  Mostly I used Emma’s fabulous write-ups to give me a baseline for what I wanted to do.  There were a few behaviors I already knew that we needed to work on — standing while I touch all over his body and walk behind him, letting me approach the girth without running off, go forward, go back.  And then there was the whole “I want you to be able to step backwards over a pole” thing.  I somewhat-irrationally decided I needed my horse to be able to do this.  But it turns out it was a good thing anyway.

belly rubs and the subsequent rhino lip are an important part of groundwork games

Fortunately, Murray has gotten past the extinction burst of awful begging behaviors (including trying to and successfully biting me) that showed up when we first started playing this game, which makes it much more fun for me.  He’s also gotten “worse” at some of the behaviors we’ve been working on, specifically backing up.  Which is interesting.  But the important thing here is how you define “worse”.  Murray doesn’t respond as quickly to the back up cue, go as far, or move as fast as he used to when we first started playing this game.  But, he is much more relaxed when we do it, and processes a response to the cue to back up instead of just flying backwards whenever I stop.  So maybe this one is actually a win?

Troubleshooting Murray’s reluctance to back up over a pole was also fun, and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s panned out so far.  Once Murray knew that I had some intention of asking him to back over a pole, i.e. after the first time I asked him to perform this behavior, he had absolutely no interest in doing anything remotely akin to backing up over a pole.  He would walk really quickly over the pole, then immediately re-position his body so that there was no possible way I could reasonably get him to go backwards over that pole.

First, we worked on stopping and standing quietly with front and back legs on either side of the pole, and then positioned just in front of and behind the pole.  We progressed to stepping front feet only over a pole, and then finally getting hind feet, and then all four feet backwards over a pole.  Murray scared himself at one point, when he stepped on the pole, rolled it on to his own feet, then kicked it backwards with his front feet on to his hinds.  While funny at the time, it did make Murray’s confidence take a dive.

Hopefully, after a few more weeks, we’ll be able to back up over a couple of sequential poles.  Though that will require a little more careful footwork than Murray has so far demonstrated.  We’ll see.

The better part of all of this, is that Murray is taking me more seriously on the ground in general.  Obviously nobody would ever have been able to predict that developing better communication for essential and important groundwork behaviors would lead to better communication overall — NO, NOBODY EVER.

I don’t think Murray’s and my relationship has suffered tooooooo negatively from missing out on this relationship building through groundwork.  I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to take such a logical and reasonable approach to it when we first got together, though.  I was too impatient, even all wrapped up in my ideas of going slowly.  But now we both have a little more perspective, and Murray’s really learned now to learn, and we’re making progress.

This paid dividends when I took a little outing this week for another fitness hack (over an hour of walking, and two short gallops, 900m and 1300m respectively).  Murray didn’t want to get in the trailer again, which is par for the course post Twin.  I had put a flat leather halter on over the rope halter to tie him with inside the trailer, but the lead rope was still hooked up to the lead rope.  When Murray stopped at the open door of the trailer and said, thanks but no thanks and tried to run off backwards, I had a much better idea of how to handle it.  First, I didn’t let him get away with running off backwards (I actually grabbed on to the trailer with my hand not holding the lead rope so I’d have an anchor), which at least made him stop and reconsider the situation.  Then I pulled him over to the side and we had a little discussion of “yes, this means forward, and it means forward now!”.  On the second go it took him a moment to accept, but jumped right in after a little think.  On the way home, he jumped in first go.

I’ve stopped being amazed at the aspects of horsemanship that I still have to learn about.  The answer is simply: everything.

creeping uphill

Another big life event, another week off of work for Murray.  It’s our pattern, but he doesn’t seem to hate it. That week was actually punctuated with a few days of riding as I evaluate the trial saddle, but none of them were particularly strenuous.  We come back from each mini break pretty quickly, and I’ve been very pleased with the progress made in between mini breaks.  Maybe this really is just a schedule that works for certain princess ponies?  Or maybe our new routine of ground work + lunging –> riding is really working for us.


being cute at Twin

We spent most of last week trying to rebalance Murray from totally on the forehand and dragging himself around, to some semblance of moving uphill.  On Monday I felt like we were cantering downhill during our warmup, and that I could slide off of Murray’s neck at any moment.  It was supremely unpleasant, not only because I know that’s not how we’re supposed to go, but because it’s really just rather uncomfortable.  Murray wasn’t terribly responsive to my half halts, so I took a moment to re-assess and figure out how to attack the problem without picking a fight.

our video from Twin is mostly sass punctuated by cute moments
presently pictured: sass, in case you couldn’t tell

I tried to sit up and use my core, instead of tipping forward into Murray’s downhill-ness, and started to incorporate the lateral work back in to our routine.  I’ve generally avoided lateral work since December, since Murray and I both use it as such an out: he is more than happy to go sideways if he doesn’t want to work, and when I get bored/stupid I start to think “porque no los leg yields?” instead of “let’s really shore up your shitty connection, Nicole”.


murray goes hrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

And slowly but surely, throughout the week, Murray’s balance started to come up.  He still wanted to lean on my hand and PLOW down any straight line we did, especially when they were off the wall (uh… will have to fix that before we show FOR SURE).  But I found that if I moderated his pace a little more with my seat and core — which I am finally figuring out how to use — that we could maintain a little bit more uphill balance.  There is still a lot of work to be done there, but straight lines are hard.  (Though, I’ve just realised that is exactly what JM was focusing on with me, so I could probably bring some of the straightness/slight counter flexion exercises to those off-the-wall-straight-lines and potentially achieve the same results. Food for thought.)


smile for the camera!

We also had a jump lesson where Murray was a super freaking rockstar mashing around a grid and some bigger (for our recent exploits) fences on a much bigger and more forward step.  It felt amazing.  It wasn’t the same as the pookums usually feels — there was less of that launch off the ground that sometimes accompanies bigger fences —  but great nonetheless.  And there were only two hiccups, both attributed to me riding an awful, very angled line to an airy oxer that Murray just couldn’t seem to see as a jump.  I discovered two new things in that lesson: one, my new phone’s camera is bullshit at taking videos indoors (I mean, thanks a lot you freaking potato), and two, Murray goes around pretty upside-down on that more forward step.

RBF made a very important point, which is that the big, forward step and jump is new to both Murray and I, and we’re still figuring it out.  Obviously we weren’t going to figure it out in perfect balance or make it look pretty the first time around.  She encouraged me to be patient while we get strong on this new step.  Man, RBFs.  They are so good to have around.

we’ve seen this before, but it’s soooo worth posting in HD

A big piece of the puzzle is helping Murray to understand how to use his neck while it is in a different position on his body.  Right now, he feels like/seems/is convinced that he only has access to his neck muscles (and back muscles) when his neck is pretty low — head below withers.  Actually, that’s not true.  He is convinced that he can only use his neck the way I want him to use it when his neck is very low.  He is happy to use his neck when it’s lifted a little higher — as long as he gets to use his underneck.  Which is, of course, the great secret of all dressage: MOAR UNDERNECK.


murray rejects this corner. this message brought to you by the letter H.

So my big goal has been taking that underneck access away from Murray in both sets of tack — yup, even on conditioning rides.  Add in to that the continued insistence on some kind of communication-connection through the reins (even in the stretchy trot), sitting up and using my core, keeping my aids simple and consistent, and turning my god forsaken toes in (he really has abandoned my lower leg), and it feels like I’m juggling a lot of balls to put together some okay-ish work right now.  But we really are making steps in the right direction (I think), and it’s not nearly as hard as it would have been for me to work on even 2 of those things simultaneously two months ago.

We’re getting there.  Slowly but surely.  Creeping uphill.  The only way we know how.

Anyone else feeling their progress creeping along in the good way lately?