train ’em up

There has been a consistent theme through all the Hawley clinic’s I’ve attended — and not just themes I’ve written about explicitly, like precision, rhythm, or strong basics.  Something a little more hard to put my finger on.

For example, one of my lesson mates biffed the approach to an oxer and hit it on an odd stride, but her horse went and even if he didn’t do it perfectly, he did it. Hawley was like good!, you did it.  When another rider said she didn’t think she could do the angle because her horse was so green, Hawley didn’t accept it (and with the right ride, the horse did the angle just fine).  When I couldn’t seem to get a rhythm or the correct lead on the circle of death, Hawley didn’t want me to break out of the exercise to fix things, but to fix them from within the circle.

WHYYY did i not train him to do this on purpose?

And to all of these small mistakes she said “there’s no other way, but to train them up”.

I didn’t hear Hawley give a long explanation for this, though I think I’ve heard her do so in the past (and stupidly didn’t write about it! wtf past Nicole?!?!).  This statement seems to be a bit of the riff on the old “if you’re not making mistakes, you are not doing anything / trying hard enough / learning / pushing yourself.”  Sure, we want to train our horses to be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, cleverer.  But if we only ever put them in situations where they will never have to  be better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer, they will never learn to how to become those things.

By extension, it means that if we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to fail, we will never become better, smarter, quicker, stronger, or cleverer.  An interesting corollary to screwing up with confidence.

Along with this, I noticed that Hawley  has a different attitude towards horses than many of her students (clinic students?) seem to.  When we did screw up, she applauded us for committing, and frequently told us to pat our horses and make a big deal over them when they made the correct choices.  That wasn’t really new.  But when someone apologized to her and said she felt so terrible making her horse put up with her (admittedly very honest and reasonable) mistakes, HB was like “So? Give him an extra handful of grain tonight. That’s what you have him for.”


I’ve not attended a lot of clinics with big name trainers, olympians, or fancy riders, so I’m not sure if this is pervasive in the professional levels, though I imagine to some extent it must be.  And this is also not to say, in the least way, that she is not a kind, respectable, incredibly savvy horsewoman and rider.  Just that, perhaps, being all of those things on a professional level means that you cannot necessarily afford all the soft squishiness that tends to accompany amateur riders.  It’s a little less “this hairy beast is my whole heart” and a little more “we have a working relationship”.

But it’s true!  We have this giant, expensive, oversized pets to have fun and learn on.  If I’m doing those two things, what am I doing this for?  I feel far more awful when I’ve been making mistakes of hubris with Murray, like pushing him for something I thought we should be ready to achieve “just because”, than when I make an honest mistake, like riding him in a saddle that didn’t really fit for a year.  And as much as I appreciate his quirkiness and silliness and the feeling of connection we have both in the tack and out, he’s not the shoulder-to-cry-on-best-friend-through-thick-and-thin that some people profess their horses to be.

broseph just isn’t that into cuddling

I’m not trying to be more like Hawley or distance myself from my horse thinking that it makes me a better or more accomplished rider. (OKAY YOU CAUGHT ME I’M ALWAYS TRYING TO BE MORE LIKE HAWLEY!) But it is interesting to think about where, on the relationship spectrum, Murray falls in my life.  He’s no Ellie, that’s for sure, but I value him more than I do my chickens.  (A lot more, and not just because of price/size/weight.)  I will never, ever be able to sell him, but that’s not really because of our relationship… But I don’t want to, either, because I value our partnership and everything he has to teach me.

I do want to know where you fall on the spectrum — from “pony would sleep in my bed every night if I could” to “this is nothing more than a business arrangement” — and how you think it influences your riding.

in which I finally get to ride my horse again

After Murray’s Monday morning melting moment (gosh there are just so many fun alliterations I can make with this!), I knew that Tuesday would take a little more care and tact.  I got out to the barn in the evening, when the arena was already busy.  I tied Murray up in the same place as on Monday, and took it really, really easy with him while I was grooming and as I started tacking up.  I unhooked him when we got to the girth, gave him plenty of carrots, and walked him around the barn twice to both settle him and enforce manners (walk, stop, stand, good boy, walk more, etc.).  Murray walked around a bit more than usual, but didn’t seem like he was particularly scarred by Monday’s misadventure.

I started with lunging, as I almost always do for dressage lessons these days, and Murray wiggled and spooked around a few times.  He was a little short behind but he always has to work into a proper trot.  And then he was dramatically, absurdly, cartoonishly lame for five steps.  Like he had three normal legs and his left hind was wearing a rollerskate.  I stopped, checked his feet, walked him for a minute, and trotted him out again.  Back to normal Murray short-steppin’.  I called it a night to be on the safe side and gave Murray a big scoop of bute with a nice warm mash.

img_20170113_131724puddle drinking with friends

I wasn’t terribly surprised he was a little lame.  It could have been a rock/abscess/twisted ankle easily, since it came on very suddenly after passing through a deep-ish spot and disappeared just as quickly.  But Murray had also spent five minutes freaking THE FUCK OUT the day before, then a grand total of ten minutes on the lunge, and promptly stood in his stall for more than 24 hours while it plummeted from 50 degrees to 35 degrees.  I wiped his feet down when we got back to the barn to check more carefully for potential abscesses (nothing).  But when I put my hand on his glutes he tensed his quads and lower back so tight that the muscles were bulging like crazy.

So no riding on Tuesday.

Wednesday was just as cold and horrible, and it was pouring to boot.  Luckily when I got to the barn there was only one other person there, and she had just gotten done riding, so I quickly walked Murray out to the arena to check how sound he was.  I left his blanket on thinking that I could take it off if I needed to for further diagnostics.  When we got to the arena Murray was so excited for turnout, just so so so excited, and he kept letting me walk a few feet out in front of him and then leaping and flailing and high fiving the air with joy.  But manners, we must remember them.  So I insisted on a little sobriety for a moment, lunged, identified very quickly that Murray was not lame, and turned him out, to his great joy.  Then I brought in Murray’s best friend, confidante, and emotional support animal, Logan, and the two of them had a fantastic time.  Logan started out with a little scared side-eye, but once the two of them had run the wiggles out he was much happier and softer.

turnout01his happiness was a golden poem

Tacking up was much better.  I tried tying to a different spot and gave Murray lots of reinforcement for standing and being polite (which he is starting to get, as he will sometimes pointedly look away from me when I’m working with him).  We walked up and down inside the barn since it was pouring outside, and Murray was very reasonable.  Very reasonable.

I lunged quickly both ways and got on.  Murray was pretty forward but I could see that his back remained tense and wasn’t really working.  The wind picked up, and the lights in the arena danced the wild dance of poorly secured lights.  I forgot my tall boots, so had to ride in my Dublins, which was not my first choice.  But I was actually able to ride, so I took it.  This did not help, of course, with feeling secure and comfortable in the saddle with crazy winds + potentially crazy pony.

turnout03nope, not lame

Murray was wiggly, tense, and very forward, so I rode a bit front to back.  But I did not feel secure enough in the tack to really push him forward into my hands properly.  My whole goal was just to get him working and listening, instead of looking around the arena for things to spook at.  I started to feel more comfortable in the Dublins after we cantered, and Murray actually managed to put his head down and get some work done.  Every time the lights shook over us or the arena creaked and groaned he wanted to run in the opposite direction, of course, but he settled pretty well afterward and would get back to work after just a short spook.  Right up until a huge gust of wind shook the arena right on top of us, and Murray scooted off in the canter, and then right as I got him settled again a huge gust of wind made the whole arena shake, groan, and rattle above us and blew open the enormous double doors at the end.  I called it then and there and walked Murray back to the barn, where it sounded like we were inside a hurricane and the other girls in the arena joined me a few minutes later.

I checked the weather station on campus and the wind averaged 37 mph with gusts up to 47 mph at 10 meters height – i.e. arena roof height.  Definitely more than the 15 mph predicted by the weather app.  And there’s more of this to come!  HOORAY!

turnout02let me freak!

no more dr. nice guy

Per my goals post, a big one for me and Murray is to stop taking short cuts.  I don’t really know where to start with this, there’s no clever preamble to this stuff, I just need to dive right in.

I have skipped a lot of steps in training Murray in favor of funner/better/other things that I wanted or felt like I needed to do.  After three years we still can’t reliably tack up while tied, let alone stands still for grooming and tacking up like most other non-feral eight year olds.  We can’t use the cross ties, don’t stand for the vet, still freak out when people move things nearby (especially blankets), have knocked down at least two people on the way to turnout, break away from the trailer half the times we go out, and still can’t use cross ties.  And that’s just things on the ground that Murray can’t do.  I would list the things we can’t do/suck at while lunging, doing ground work, or under saddle except I just started that and it was super embarrassing so I deleted them.


When I first started working with Murray I skipped things like really, properly working with him to tack up while standing still because I thought that with repeated exposure he would just… figure it out.  Other horses do that, right?  Later, I just wanted to get to riding.  I know how to work around his wiggling and get him tacked up so I can just go and ride.  I am very talented at doing up all the buckles on his bridle while he’s wandering off, and tightening the girth while he circles me suspiciously.  I know just how to lunge so he doesn’t stop and turn in on the circle.

After three years together, Murray and I know each other well enough that we can get some things done.  But just because I can do it with him doesn’t mean that Murray “can do” that stuff.  I can just trick, needle, or bribe him in to it, and it’s unreliable when most other people try.

But honestly, these are just the glaring holes that I’ve left in Murray’s skill set/training.  Even under saddle, and especially in dressage, I skipped a looooot of steps.  Not always because I just wanted to get on to funner things, but I’m not going to pretend that wasn’t some of the reason.  Trotting in circles working on connection, gaits, and relaxation is boring when the progress you make from day to day is miniscule, backward, and/or generally non-linear.  It’s a lot more fun to have a stab at putting on leg yields and do it with varying levels of success and correctness and then move on to walk to canter because those are pony dancing moves, right!?! Right?


So I just… skipped to the fun stuff.  A lot.

I think everyone does it.  There are always times when you just want to get past the babyness or silliness or garbage or whatever and do something else.  A lot of the time I suspect there is no lasting effect — someone is having an off or funky day and can’t figure out how to ground pole so you just skip it for a ride — and you get on with your lives.  But in my case, I’ve ended up with a horse who dances around and still panics while I’m tacking up, walks away while I’m  bridling, can only be ridden and handled by a literal handful of people, and has a pretty reasonable number of days where we can hardly get anything done.

Murray has also learned a lot of things.  I’m not trying to have a (full blown) pity party blame game here.  I can actually get him tacked up, ride in all kinds of different arenas, jump all kinds of different things, and do some pretty solidly 5-6 scoring pony dancing moves.  We can walk from the barn to the turnouts in the pitch black or with a scaryscaryscary patch of light from a flash light wobbling in front of us.  I can put his blanket on over his head or over his back.  We can really do leg yields and even some counter canter loops — sure, they need polish, but we can do some shit!

It’s time to really get the rest of that stuff done.  Even if it means I don’t get to ride that day because I spend all my free time working on basic ground manners or getting Murray to stand properly for tacking up.  No more short cuts.  It’s time to train this pony right, from the bottom to the top.

I don’t have a fully conceived plan for everything I want to get done.  A lot of it just involves making a point of doing stuff that Murray purposely doesn’t want to do – like walking with impulsion and connection.  Even if it means we never trot that day.  Even if it means Murray kicks out and flings his head around.  We must be able to do these things.

So no more short cuts. Even if it means I don’t get to ride that day. Even if it means I spend weeks on the ground.  Even if it means having my feet trodden on and tears of desperation and frustration.

Making Murray a well rounded and well-broke horse is worth it.

he also tried to commit suicide in the crossties once
the last time Murray set foot in the x-ties was more than a year ago

setting up for success

One of my goals for 2017 (though you don’t know it yet as I haven’t pushed the goals post) is to write more ride recaps.  They are really helpful, and since I don’t jot things down in my ride journal consistently any more, it’s good to have information preserved here.

When I got back from Thanksgiving last year I launched right into riding and Murray was Not Into It.  I stuck it out because I didn’t want to get off and lunge him simply for the sake of lunging and letting him “win”, but… better choices have been made.  Another of my general goals (for this year and forever) is to set both Murray and I up for more successes (success = confidence = more success = more confidence = NOTHING BUT A CIRCLE OF AWESOME).  So after 17 days off and very limited turnout, I threw Murray on the lunge line to start off our ride.

lunge02pony looks strangely huge in this image

Murray is typically less reactive to the long girth (setting up for success!), so I put on his jump saddle and brought the lunging equipment out to the arena.  I haven’t lunged Murray without some kind of dressagery-contraption on him (side reins, chambon, etc.) and boy does he look funny with his head all poking up in the air.  After his mini vacation Murray had the steering and go button of a lesson pony — it was adorable.  He got a couple of wiggles out, shook his head a few times, tried to pretend that he didn’t know what to do when poles SUDDENLY APPEARED in front of him, and then we got to work.  He struggled a little to hold the canter going right, which was odd, but I figured that he’s allowed to be a little stiff after so much time in his stall.

After getting on I tried to stick to my principles of making things go right from the beginning, asked Murray to soften into the bridle and keep marching forward (weirdly, he was capable of this), and then move into the trot with minimal fuss.  Since I was in the jump saddle I practiced a little two point, but felt weirdly slippery and insecure in the tack.  I guess that’s what I get for not riding for two weeks?  I let him stretch out at the canter and blessedly (thank you, pony gods) he did not buck or kick me out of the tack.

lunge01I’m feeling sooooooo reasonable tonight!

Murray got a little tense in the corners of the arena that had stuff in them, but he did pretty well when I pushed him off my inside leg to ask for more bend and more give.  He was falling over his right shoulder also, but that’s nothing new.  I focused on twisting my body along with his bend to help control his right shoulder, and while it wasn’t perfect, it helped.  Cantering right he kept breaking into the trot when I asked him to sit  a little more on his hocks, so I didn’t ask too much.

We were sharing the arena with one baby horse, who was being pretty good but had one minor meltdown when she kicked a clod of dirt against the wall.  Murray scooted and shuffled after the baby’s freakout, but got his ish back together really well.  I did one spiral in-out in each direction trying really, really hard and failing to keep Murray straight while we did it.  I just want the neck bend, let me have the neck bend! PLEASE.  I am an inside rein addict.  Ah well – just another thing to work on!

Since it was already 37 when I got back to the barn, I put Murray’s medium weight purple blanket on.  Okay, that’s a lie.  I put it on to admire the purpleness.  It looks kinda weird but I think it was the right choice (also, hopefully it will not rub his shoulders, but looking at the picture I think it will rub his hips goddamnit).


stubborn together blog hop: couples therapy

PiccoloPony brought up something interesting, which ties in with thoughts I’ve been having about mentorship, learning, and training lately.

How does your current (or past) trainer manage the partnership/relationship between you and your horse(s)?

B has been my only serious riding trainer, though I’ve had many mentors, coaches, and teachers in my life.  I’ve been her student on a lesson horse, a 4-day-a-week lease, and Murray (who was a care-lease-to-ownership situation, if you’re not all caught up on that).  And I’ve been treated differently on the different horses.

On Mighty, my lessons were great, but limited by my skill.  I will admit I don’t remember a ton about these lessons.  I know we did a lot of coursing but no terribly challenging questions, and didn’t really jump above 2’6″.  B didn’t focus on my position overmuch, though obviously I got a lot more comments on it than I do now because I was a lot more green.  She was always pleasant and encouraging.  Mighty challenged me a lot but he was a really well known challenge for B.  She knew his tricks inside and out, and had assessed me as a rider pretty quickly so could tell exactly what I needed to do.

might bigger

When I moved to leasing Quincy four days a week, with at least a lesson each week, my relationship with B changed.  This was at least in part because Quincy was her step-daughter’s horse, so there was a stronger tie there.  Quincy was also a particular dressage challenge because he was very upside down and had a lot of muscles that said he wouldn’t go that way.  He wasn’t the best horse for me to learn dressage on, but she didn’t have any dressage schoolmasters at the time (moved facilities, downsized the herd, etc.).  But with that came a LOT of personal encouragement and demonstrations to help me understand concepts I did not understand.  And I continued to not understand them, but not for lack of trying on B’s part. I was simply too green to horses still.

I wrote a lot of words that didn’t really answer the main question here.  But in essence, both of these horses were reasonable, steady guys and when something was going wrong it was very, very, very apparent that I was the one making the mistake(s)(s)(s).  B was always kind and reasonable telling me about these mistakes, and I think she appreciated my ability to make fun of myself and realize that I still wasn’t sitting the fuck up even after she’d been yelling it at me all the way to a fence.

IMG_1049at least I kinda got my leg under myself in that time

Enter Murray stage left.

From the beginning B warned me that Murray would be a) slow, b) frustrating, and 1463746_681994785174666_1547265509_nc) potentially really fun. She always emphasized how important it was to keep a good attitude with him and end things on a positive note.  She’s come running across the arena when I’ve been clearly having an absolutely terrible ride, to calm me down and do what needed to be done to either get me back in the saddle or diffuse the situation.  I can always trust B to encourage me back towards a middle-ground with Murray: if I’m being overly harsh and crazy, she’ll point me back towards gentle. If I’m being too soft, she’ll remind me to buck up.

Murray also has a special place in B’s heart since she found him and took a chance on him when he was 2 and basically still a foal on big horse legs.  I know that helps her see through the ridiculousness.  I also think/know that as a pair we make her laugh during lessons (especially jump lessons), which I know as a teacher is WAY more fun than lessons where you don’t laugh.

IMG_3333It sounds a little odd, and sappier that I’m used to being, but I can tell that B wants to train me and Murray to be better together.  (In part, because she knows she’d have a hell of a time selling him for me if I got sick of him! hah!)  It’s not just about getting this movement down or that exercise completed, but actually improving the way the two of us communicate.  She reminds me a lot of where we came from and how much progress we’ve made, even if Murray is still secretly a lazy, naughty, Thellwell pony in disguise.

there’s no need to be a dick about it

Last week I mentioned that my rides were full of revelation, dusted with glimpses of glory, and glistening with the ghosts of my past bursting with hidden potential!!  Even if only one of those four three things is true, it was a week filled with learning. And one of the most impactful revelations, as I was asking Murray to use his body in more correct and possibly slightly uncomfortable ways, was that there’s no need to be a dick about it.

dressage1No need to be a dick about it, right Murray?

When Murray is tense and not working over his back he isn’t doing it for no reason — there’s legitimate tension and fear there that we need to work through.  And that progress is going to come slowly, as Murray gains confidence in the new way I’m asking him to move and carry himself.  He’s not going to develop a springier trot with suspension by running away from scary lions (or my whip), and he’s not going to lean into the bridle and stay steady in the connection if he thinks that those lions are possibly going to leap out at him from every corner.

And that’s all fine.  We will never make progress if we don’t push outside of our comfort zone.  But I don’t need to be a dick about it.  I have a prefrontal cortex and the ability to understand that deliberate practice and careful repetition will make us better, stronger, and more capable.  Murray has a brain that is smaller than one of his testicles would have been, had he been allowed to keep them, and knows that working this way makes him feel funny and isn’t as much fun as, say, rolling in a pasture or napping in his paddock.

Image result for chimp brain vs testicleA chimpanzee’s brain (background) compared to one of its testicles (foreground) – lest you think I was exaggerating earlier

So I get to ask Murray to do things that are hard and uncomfortable, but I only get to do it politely and kindly, and praise him when he does the right thing.  If I were better at riding, I’d ask perfectly, respond perfectly, and then praise him more quickly than I do.  But I’m not (and quite frankly, he’s not so peachy keen about learning himself), so he can deal.  We’ll do hard things and uncomfortable things, and then we’ll take a break — no need to drill, no need to ask at Volume 10 what could have been asked at Volume 2, and no need to nitpick the little things that I feel should have been accomplished by now.

But the same thing goes for him — if he wants me to play nice, he has to put in an honest effort.  Sometimes he’s great; I can feel the confusion leaving his body and we get to a good place using more than time.  And some days, that just doesn’t happen (sometimes that’s okay, but mostly that’s a no go).  He knows that leg on does mean something, and it means that something for more than one disgusting inverted step.


It’s a hard line to walk, and because I generally try not to be an asshole I tend to fall a little far on the side of “that’s okay”.  But we’re tightening everything up this fall, including our cues and our expectations.  An honest effort is all I expect out of both of us — and for both of us to stop being dicks about it.

embrace the suck

Since I started riding properly again, I’ve been floored by how much work Murray and I still have to do.  It wasn’t that I thought our skills and riding were amaaaaayyyzing when I was hardly riding, it was more that if I was only riding once or twice a week it seemed like a lot of effort to tackle something really hard only to have it go un-reinforced for a few days (or weeks).  It was easier just to… not.  But now that we’re back at it, I’ve realized we kinda really suck.  And I’m loving it!

yves7we r so gud at obedience

There is so much room for improvement, and with these ideals in mind I’m ready to tackle it all.  So what if we spend close to 45 minutes just connecting to both reins and moving into the connection?  Sometimes, evidently, it takes professionals that long too!

So let’s do this. And let’s do it right. (Cue Home Depot music.)

dress-1and we r so gud at dressage

We’re going to have a consistent, even connection to both reins.  No more pussy footing around on this one.

Leg will mean something — for me AND Murray!  No more nagging on my part, and no more ignoring cues on his.

I will keep my leg under me and stop swinging it all the way back towards Murray’s haunches for no good reason.  I’m also going to use my body properly, sit up straight, and not block Murray’s movement with weird shoulda leans.

And we will go forward and straight.  The hardest thing for us.  This, I anticipate, will occupy 95% of our time — accepting that forward and straight is the ONLY solution.  But that’s okay.  We’ve got nothing but time.

dress-4forward + straight is the only way

Let’s do this.

(PS I wrote this on the weekend and somehow the internet ate it — the first time that’s happened to me on this blog!  Or maybe I was just drunk and didn’t really write it? Anyway, I liked the old version more but this one will suffice as a re-write, I guess.)

how to clip your recalcitrant horse 101

A tutorial from the trenches!!

I’ve clipped the rather recalcitrant Murray without drugs two years in a row now, which makes me certifiably a professional an expert.  And lezbehonest, if I can train MURRAY to accept being clipped, I can surely do anything.  Right?!

So let’s go in to detail on this process.  Because absolutely honestly, if Murray can learn to accept clipping, pretty much any horse can learn to accept clipping.  (Let’s recap his former objections: pulling back and somersaulting in the cross ties, laying down and refusing to get up, rearing, sitting down, and requiring 2cc of ace and a twitch to get the job done.)


1. Make a battle plan

When I decided I was legitimately going to train Murray to clip I knew that I’d have to fundamentally change his association with the clippers from “no fucking way this is happening” to “okay”.  For Murray this was a combination of pairing the aversive stimulus (sound of clippers, sight of clippers, feel of clippers) with a positive stimulus (carrots! mints! pats and praise aren’t worth shit to him) and flooding.

To start with, I could just turn on the clippers and treat Murray for staying put and approaching the clippers.  But he quickly figured out that he could rapidly approach and run away quickly and I was gullible enough to treat him for that.  So I had to evolve to making sure that the clippers were actually on Murray’s body and he was standing still before he got any treats.  If he didn’t want the clippers on him, then we stepped into the flooding — sometimes, you just gotta get those bad boys on your bad boy, ya know?


2. Practice early and practice often

Murray had a good training history and understood the basics of the training game, and teaching him to tolerate the clippers took 8 weeks of near-daily practice.  This year, I started practicing again about two weeks ago, and probably could have used more practice.

Don’t forget that the clippers themselves aren’t the only weird stimulus that shows up on clipping day.  There’s the show sheen, extension cords, spray coolant, cursing etc.  All of these things are worth practicing with, at least a little bit.

img_20161016_125306The “maybe I can still stop now and wait for his hair to get longer” stage

3. Persist

Don’t expect everything to go perfectly even with weeks of practice.  Unless you decided to clip a really large segment of your horse as practice, you’re going to be clipping in longer stretches than you ever practiced for on your clipping day.  Murray’s response, for the last two years, has been to come out the gate with his mind firmly set that this was bullshit.  So he was extra hateful.  But I just made like we were practicing and started with small sections and kept going.

Murray got worse before he got better, and wiggled and danced and evaded a fair bit until I laid down the law.  Murray is willing to expend a really, really, ridiculously large amount of effort in figuring out new and inventive ways to not do the thing he doesn’t want to do (even though it would all be easier if he just fucking did it).  Sometimes, he just needs a reminder that trying to pull back and run off is straight up unacceptable and so is biting me in the fucking head while I’m clipping his chest.

img_20161016_130720This hair tie helped keep me going

4. Regret your choices — keep going anyway

At some point, you’ll reach the point of no return.  This was actually highly beneficial for me, because it made me more motivated to get Murray to stand the fuck still and actually behave.  I tied up his hair so that I could get a clean mane line, started going for the belly (a curiously not-that-ticklish zone, and oh-so-gratifying to watch the hair fall away from) and Murray generally decided that life was okay.  I still had a pocket full of treats, and gave him one occasionally, but at this point I could get into a good clipping routine and just mash away.

img_20161016_144430Boom goes the dynamite. Murray’s face looks terrifying.

5. Stand back and admire your handiwork!

Honestly, these are the things that responsible breeders and yearling-raisers do to their young horses in order to teach them to tolerate new, terrifying things like clippers.  And yes, many horses are more reasonable than Murray.  But if you’re looking to me for help, your horse is probably not much more reasonable than Murray, is he?!


I have been hearing “inside leg to outside rein” for as long as I have been taking weekly lessons (seven years, if you’re wondering).  Honestly, probably more than half of my riding instructors have told me to try to push my horse from my inside leg to the outside rein, and mostly that came to me when I was a very, very green rider.  I’m not sure any of those instructors could have explained to me what it meant or the real function of pushing a horse into the outside rein – sure, it’s a bit mean to demand that of my walk-trot instructors, but why were they saying it if they couldn’t explain it?!

IMG_1985Dat outside rein tho…?

I think I finally have an iota of understanding about what it means to ride from inside leg to outside rein, and I’m sure there’s so much more left to learn.  But let me tell you  how I’ve gotten this far.

I distinctly remember the first time I thought I understood inside leg to outside rein (and maybe I kindof did at that point?).  I was in a lesson riding a Kruz, a percheron-cross with parrot mouth, so we always rode him in a hack.  I was doing one more circle (or something like that) at the end of a lesson, and I rode a circle that didn’t rely on me puling the inside rein in something that probably wanted to be a square. What really happened, I suspect, is that I put my outside leg on for the first time in ever, and probably controlled Kruz’s shoulders a little with my outside rein.  But it felt like magic!

might biggerI was not bending this — look how weak my leg was!

After Kruz there were lesson horses and lease horses.  I never tried doing dressage on Mighy, and honestly I’m glad.  I was neither strong enough nor tactful enough to ever approach that.  I do know that I had to prepare to turn early and prepare to turn often to get Mighty to turn when I wanted him to, and there was a lot of outside rein and leg associated with those turns.  It was less about getting him to bend around my leg and more about getting that Cadillac of a body to make any kind of turns at ALL.  Later, this would get me into trouble on sportier models, as I frequently accidentally spun us around far too quickly after fences.

Nobody even tried to suggest that I put my inside leg and outside rein on Quincy – there was so much he struggled to understand about dressage and unlocking his neck and back that pushing him into that contact would not have done anything.  I’m not sure if I could do it if I tried today, but perhaps I could.  But had they suggested it, it would have been something I followed by rote, instead of understanding why I was trying to do it.

IMG_0459I’m still using a white troxel in a velvet cover — I am not ready for inside leg-outside rein

I got little glimpses of what it meant to push a horse into the outside rein.  This was often hampered by my perpetually open fingers, thus making the “outside rein” something of a non-thing.  While I could feel the positive effects and knew it was The Way to correctness, I didn’t understand why or what exactly I was doing.  I mean, sure, I guess I had figured out that I was pushing my horse out from the inside of the circle, and even into a steady rein that would help contain their energy.  But other than that it seemed like more of a trick than a riding style or habit, because I didn’t have much exposure to it.

Enter Murray.  Sweet, charming, always willing to give it a try…

IMG_3747much willing, so honest

Okay, so let’s talk about the real Murray.  Until very, very recently, outside leg to inside rein was not on the menu for him.  And therefore, it was not on the menu for me.  But we’ve had a chance to play around with it a bit, on more than a few occasions, and I’m starting to understand.

Inside leg-outside rein is more than just a party trick.  And it’s not even just something that gets your horse to soften and create the dressage “outline” that we all value so.  At the very least it helps keep the bend, by giving your horse something to bend around (that inside leg), and a barrier to help them not go flying across the arena.  Though I don’t like to keep my leg jammed on in general, it does help Murray find a balance that doesn’t rely on me holding him up.  It means we can make real circles, instead of just approximations that have a lot of corners and vector changes.

IMG_8875haunches in line with forequarters – check. modicum of bend through ribs… half check?

More recently, Megan helped me understand that the inside leg-outside rein paradigm helps you encourage your horse’s body to bend without necessarily taking their feet off of the track of the circle.  The idea is to have your horse’s ribcage pushed out further than their feet – which is not the shape my horse typically wants to achieve.  And then the outside rein helps to encourage that outside front foot to come around the circle (it’s a longer track, after all, since it’s on the outside of a circle) and land ahead of the motion and keep the bend.

It’s all connected, you see.

So that’s a little nugget of learning that took me seven years, seven instructors, and three lease horses to figure out.  Now, on to more learning!



i want to see you be brave

Among the many things that Murray is good at — and there are many! Being adorable, leveraging his adorableness to get what he wants, treating “his” herd which he is now the boss of with kindness and respect, pretending that he’s too cool for school, hating new shavings, etc. — being brave is not one of them.  And this has never been more apparent to me than now: Murray is in sporadic work and seems to be afraid of just about everything right now.  Newly painted fences?  Terrifying.  Spooky corner of the arena?  Horrifying.  A few items of jump paraphernalia in the middle of the arena?  THE WORST.  Jump standards he’s seen approximately 9461257 times?  Barely acceptable.

scared of that thing

Our first ride back together last week was not a triumphant reunion.  Murray spent his time flailing left and right and proving himself to be flexible through the ribcage in ways he usually spends a lot of time convincing me that he is not.  I mean seriously, have you ever felt a horse bend his body left while his neck is flexed right, all while also running right?  It’s super magical.  During our warm up I basically reminded Murray that his only job was to keep his head down, listen to me, flex when I told him to, and listen to me.  Twenty minutes of power trotting around every single possible spooky item in the arena Murray could actually work.

octdressage2For my next few rides I brought a bunch of extra lifesavers into the arena with me and made a point of walking Murray up to every scary object and playing our old game “touch” with them.  It’s a super game: I say “touch!” and Murray walks up to something scary and blows the Curious Ungulate blow, and finally after he touches it he gets candy.  Delicious, delicious candy.

These two solutions are basically on opposite ends of the spectrum — address the object straight on and associate it with something positive, or work and ignore the things.  There’s some middle ground too, where I just ignore that he’s scared of anything and keep working on something else.  I use all of these at different times.  But at the moment it’s worth it for me to avoid the fight with Murray and just take the time and bribe him.  It changes his association with scary objects*, and puts him in a better mood for the ride overall.

* Though it may very well create other distraction problems where Murray wants to go towards those things to retrieve the sweet, sugary reward there… but if that happens I will, frankly, consider it a huge success.

Repeated exposure to scary things with positive or (at least) non-terrifying experiences always makes Murray calmer and quieter.  Now that we are backin the riding swing, I hope I’ll be seeing a braver Murray in the next few weeks.  But what I really want to know is what you do to help your horse be brave.  Because I need more tricks in my magic bag!  Murray ain’t gonna know what hit him.


Interestingly, Murray is always way braver when he’s been jumping.  And he’s much less afraid of objects he’s jumped over.  Which proves that his only viable career is eventing, since otherwise his list of things he isn’t afraid of would quickly dwindle to…. basically just our barn manager.