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Day 4 on the LS Ranch

I’m happy to say today was a short day.  I’ve been running pretty hard and it was really nice to be done around 1:30 today.  Still, it was about 5 hours of horse time with Dave, the ranch manager and another apprentice.  I have been assigned my own “string” of horses for the week.  Each one has an area that Dave would like developed, except for one named Keeper.  I will be getting to know my “string”, figuring out how to talk to each horse and trying to set them up to be better in some way.  I love this sort of challenge!

Ricky and I.  We partnered well for the Ranch Versatility clinic.

Ricky and I. We partnered well for the Ranch Versatility clinic.

Dave had things to do in the afternoon, so he made sure I was good to go with the 2 horses I’d been assigned for the day before he left me to my projects.  I was trying to figure out exactly how to function as an apprentice so I was slowly getting going with my first mare, Keeper.  Keeper is a super cute Morgan who is very RBE under saddle.  Dave gave me a little history and explained that he’d never seen anyone get her to settle and be calm under saddle.  Dave thought it would be good practice for me to ride a hotter, more anxious horse as a way to help me manage my own energy.  My endurance mare Zarah was quite similar to Keeper, so I have years of experience getting a horse like this to settle.  I’m excited to see if I can help her find some relaxation under saddle this week.  She’s a nice mare who really aims to please.  Dave was clear that he doesn’t expect the horse to change, but that I could benefit from riding such an anxious girl.  I hope I can help her, but I’ll focus on regulating my energy and staying calm and free myself.

Keeper on the left, Cuda on the right

Keeper on the left, Cuda on the right

I started her off in the 75′ round pen and then took her out on the obstacle course.  She’s such a nice little mare, just so anxious about being ridden.  I tried to stay light in my hands, but connected.  She has very little flexion in her neck, so I tried to set her up to bend an awful lot and find softness there.  She was getting better and better!  I’ve got a week to play with her and see how we can get going together.

Next, I played with Cuda, a chestnut Qtr Horse mare.  She was Jody’s first Parelli levels horse.  She’d been someone else’s rejected horse before Jody.  She has some challenges staying connected with her rider and Dave helped me to help her stay with me.  She needs to know her rider is there and if she starts feeling disconnected, she will raise her head and take it side to side.  She helped me practice feeling back to the horse through the bit and asking her to stay with me stride after stride.  I don’t know if she can be ridden freestyle, but I might try a little.  When I first started riding her, she gave me the feeling that she might run away with me.  I’ll be playing with her connection through a lighter rein as I get to know her this week.  She’s an amazing mover and she trots sideways lighter than any horse I can remember feeling.

I gathered my stuff and decided to call it a day.  An afternoon off will help me be fresh for the rest of my stay.  I’ve been going non-stop and a little time off made sense.

More tomorrow!

Day 2 at LS Ranch

Our day started with Jody spending more time on using Friendly to connect.  The day before, she’d done a demo using this concept.  It was very interesting and a few students wanted some individual help.  So, our day started out with a few of the students playing with the concept while Jody and Dave coached and assisted.  I’m glad I let my horse take a nap for this part so I could just observe.  I noticed a few things that left big impressions.  First, this will only work if the horse has a good grasp on it’s responsibility to maintain gait and direction.

One of the horse/human partnerships I got to watch closely.  I noticed that the human was struggling to apply the concept.  Her horse had figured out that the send meant to go until she didn’t feel like going anymore (about a lap, in this case).  As the human became more frustrated, the horse spent less time on the circle and more time turning in to ask questions.  The human felt the horse was being defiant, but I could see that there was no clarity on the ask from the horse’s perspective.  Dave eventually took the horse and reminded us all that we have to help the horse understand their responsibility of maintain gait and direction.  To do that, we must cause the horse to get uncomfortable whenever they make a change we didn’t ask for.

Learning how to use Friendly game to connect

Learning how to use Friendly game to connect

A big item for me – something I think I knew unconsciously – there are no phases in principle #5!  (Number 5:  the attitude of justice is effective)  If I’m using a consequence to help my horse find comfort, this is NOT the time to use phases.  Dave also talked extensively on principle #6 (Body language is universal).  For the human early in the program, it’s very hard to use your body to talk to the horse.  This takes practice, trust, the ability to put ego aside, the willingness to feel silly…  but if we are to learn to communicate with the horse in it’s language, we must begin to become effective with body language.  There was a student in the class who talked to her horse throughout all her dealings with the horse.  It was more clear to me today than probably ever, as to why that’s not a great deal to the horse.  Animal trainers are typically teaching the animal to work in our language.  What we’re trying to accomplish is learning to talk to the horse in THEIR language.  When we start to abandon the use of our language in our communication with the horse, we start to speak horse… natural horsemanship.  I’m so on board with this concept.

After this session, we mounted up to learn a dry work pattern in ranch versatility.  We used the question box and asked the horse to canter three circles (2 large and fast, 1 smaller and slower) through the box and then change leads.  A simple lead would suffice, a flying lead would get more points.  This, I think, was tough for many as everyone is watching as each participant takes a turn.  At least, it was challenging for me.  But, we were able to get it done just fine.  I’d been struggling with feeling a little downhill on Ricky and the day before Dave had helped me teach Ricky to come up in front while cantering.  Today, I was pitching forward and I got a little extra help from Jody on sitting back with this horse and this saddle configuration.  It’s definitely a tough downhill situation for me and I was happy for the opportunity to figure out how to learn from it.  The things Jody talked about were similar to things I’ve heard before and I continue to develop within my own riding, but in this situation I was finding it very challenging.  However, I played with it and made some improvements that definitely helped Ricky lift up the front more.

20140215_142247After lunch, it was time for the cows!  We went in groups of 3 and had 3 turns of increasing difficulty in stockmanship.  First we simply tailed the cow.  Ricky was expecially awesome at this, biting the cow frequently.  Quite entertaining to the others watching as we careened around the arena behind this cow, biting at his rump.  Ricky was so dang handy and offered flying changes all over the place.  The second round we were to cause the cow to make some change, then back off and release the horse.  The cow could turn or stop, but the idea was to let the horse know that his efforts caused the cow to make that change and his work was done.  The third round, we were to cause the cow to stop in each corner of the arena.  So, 4 corners meant 4 opportunities to get the cow to stop exactly where we wanted.  This was very fun and I was able to play with the counterbend to cause the horse to back up.  This can be quite tricky as you use the horse’s hind end to keep the cow from turning around and the horse’s front end to push the cow backwards.  You’ve got to have a good feel for the balance point of the cow as well as a horse in sync enough to follow your request instantly.  Tough!  But a very fun challenge.

It was a great afternoon of putting principle to purpose.  Cows make horses better, braver and keep things fun for both horse and human.

Day 3 at LS Ranch

Today was a complete blast!  This was the 3rd and final day of the Ranch Versatility clinic.  The entire day was devoted to 4 classes – trail class, dry work, cow work and pattern work.  For the first class, we drew numbers to order the competitors randomly.  For this class, we had to follow a pattern that included transitions with walk/trot/canter/backup gaits.  The track wrapped around some round pens and had us maneuvering inside and outside of a large arena.  It probably took each contestant about 5 minutes to ride through the pattern and each transition and section was judged.  This was pretty fun!  I definitely want to set something like this up for my students.  Ricky and I were able to win this class.  He’s an excellent horse partner and very responsive to my requests for transitions.

The second class was the trail class.  Here, we were asked to show 6 of the trail obstacles we’d played with on day 1 and day 2.  My mount was great on everything except the drag.  Surprisingly, he’s not too crazy about feed bags being tied to ropes and chasing him around.  🙂  A few of the other obstacles we didn’t do as well, but that was only because I wasn’t exactly clear on the expectations.  My horse partner was superb and I take all the blame for any low scores.  I definitely don’t think we did as well in this class as we could have.

Dave and Matt keeping the score

Dave and Matt keeping the score

The third piece of the competition was dry work.  We had to ride a pattern showing lead changes (simple or flying) with concentric circles.  This one is especially fun because you’re challenged to lope for a long time, changing leads and varying your speed at the lope.  Ricky was again a superb partner for this.  We were able to get the high points in this class.

The last part was the actual cow work.  This was a tricky one because we were not being judged on stockmanship, but on horsemanship.  The judges wanted to see that we could maneuver our horses in a way to influence the balance point of the cow and not simply following the cow.  This one is tough because the cow could make or break your run.  We had to cause the cow to ride along 4 walls of the arena (it’s about a 200’x200′ arena).  The faster you were able to go while keeping the cow moving along the rail, the better your score would be.  Then, after the 4 walls were covered, you were to pen the cow in a round pen set up in the middle.  This meant using your horse’s zone 1 to cause the cow to turn into the pen opening.  Driving your cow into the pen from zone 5 would earn less points than driving the cow in from zone 1.  Our cow kept stopping along the rails and trying to turn the other way, which made it tough to get a good run down each rail.  Our penning was pretty good, though!

Ricky and I were the high point winners for the entire competition.  I was proud but mainly thankful to have such a good horse for the day and for the whole clinic.  He’s a hell of a horse.  He allowed me an opportunity to work on myself that I haven’t had in quite some time.  I’m typically developing the horse I’m on and it was a treat to be able to truly develop myself for a few days.

I got so much out of this day, but the biggest win for me was the ability to play with my own emotional fitness in a competitive environment.  I laughed a lot and had fun with it, but I struggled with nervousness before each performance.  My horse, thankfully, stayed on task in spite of my nerves.  It’s a challenge to lope around patterns or obstacles while a group of people watch.  I was able to play with forgetting about the audience and focusing on that moment with my horse.

Loping a section of the pattern

Loping a section of the pattern

If you’re a student of mine, get ready!  We are going to be having some fun with this over the spring and summer.  🙂

We finished late afternoon and I made sure Dave was ok with me going out with Ricky alone to play with some jumping.  Jody overhead that and offered to give me some coaching on western jumping.  Excellent!  We focused a lot on the approach and the follow-through, staying out of the horse’s way while flowing with the horse in the jump and figuring out a few good ways for me to weight myself and get deep in the saddle through the jump.  I used a night latch a few times but had more success putting one arm high in the air through the jump which pushed my butt into the saddle.  Super fun and I felt super successful.  Thank you, Jody!

Note:  When Jody and I got started, she reassessed the saddle position and moved the shims.  I felt way better with the new balance point of the saddle after the adjustment!  This definitely helped me with the jumping.

A great finish to a great 3-day clinic on Ranch Versatility at the LS Ranch.  Now, I’ve got 7 days of apprentice work with Dave and the other 2 working students on the ranch.  Time to hunker down and get serious.

More to come tomorrow…

Ten Days with Dave Ellis at LS Ranch

I have been able to figure out how to get away for 10 days to expand and grow my horsemanship with Dave Ellis and Jody Grimm at their ranch in California.  For anyone with kids, a business, a life at all… you can appreciate how difficult this is.  I have an amazingly supportive husband, though.  I’m so lucky and immensely grateful.

I will post as many details as I can remember from my experience so that maybe my friends and students can attain some valuable horsemanship gems, as well.  Please feel free to comment any questions you have.

Enjoy!

Day 1 – The beginning of Ranch Versatility on Ricky

Day 2 – Learning a dry work pattern and starting with cows

Day 3 – The Ranch Versatility competition

Day 4 – Beginning as an apprentice

Day 5 – Learning the proper use of the hackamore

Day 6 – Overloaded with information

Day 7 – Letting it all soak in

Day 8 – Enjoying the ranch

Day 9 – Equitation and collection

Day 10 – The Grand Finale!

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Day 1 at LS Ranch

A very full day, indeed.  Started with time at the pole barn, Dave discussing his plans for the next 3 days.  Today is day 1 of a 3 day ranch versatility clinic.  I have been assigned Ricky for the next 3 days.  Ricky is a 7 yr old Appendix gelding who’s been ridden by apprentices for the past 3-4 years.  Dave walked us through the trail class obstacles for the clinic and explained that on the last day there will be a competition, sort of.  We will get scored on the 12 obstacles on Sunday, as well as some of the other things we will work on throughout the clinic.

Dave stressed the importance of the counterbend, repeatedly.  He went so far as to say it is one of the most important maneuvers you can do on a horse.  He also talked about making turns around obstacles by asking the hind to move instead of the fore.  With the counterbend and hind end control, he believes turns are much easier for the horse and keeps the rider out of the horse’s mouth.  I played for a while with taking corners by asking the horse to bend then asking him to move in the direction of the bend (to the outside).  He’s then perfectly prepared to head off straight in the direction of the turn.  It’s like setting up the horse to turn, but then letting him actually make the turn without me.

Jody did a demo on using extreme friendly to connect or relax a horse.  This was a great demo and something I’ll definitely be using on several of the horses I’m currently developing.  The idea is to respond to their reactionary behavior by using extreme friendly and rewarding the connection (or the relaxation – whichever is your focus).  This is a great technique for spooky horses or overreactive horses.  Once it’s in place on the ground, get it going in the saddle.  When riding, if your horse is tense or spooky, employ the friendly stimulus you’ve developed to get them reconnected and back to you.  Brilliant!

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Ricky is heavy on the fore and I was struggling a little to get him lighter in front and more engaged behind.  Dave gave me some help on the side.  He had me create commotion in the bridle until Ricky would lift his head and then help him learn that he’ll be more comfortable with his head higher.  In the canter, he had me ride every other canter stride while lifting the front end of the horse.  This all made perfect sense, just an application I’ve never tried.  I cantered around playing with asking him to be light in front and then playing with asking him to stretch forward.  Walter Zettle says every canter stride should be a preparation to jump, so the rider gets to decide – are we jumping high or are we jumping far and wide.  I was able to develop the canter I wanted with each stride with this focus in mind.  Awesome.

Jody had us jumping up a wall jump in the afternoon.  There is a 3 ft’ wall jump and she explained straightness through the jump, preparing for the jump by circling at the beginning of the approach and peeling off exactly at the point of the circle that sets up for a straight approach and then grabbing mane high on the horses neck to make the leap.  We went both up the jump and then back down.  I’m not much of a jumper, but it was a nice challenge to set up Ricky to do it straight and feel my focus. 

I had to laugh at myself when I tried to make a big jump on my own after the wall jump.  I went for a jump about 3’6″ (about waist high).  I was jumping into Dave’s honeycomb over the top of hill and fortunately noone saw me bite the dust!!  🙂  I asked Ricky to leap over it and he wasn’t prepared.  We approached to slowly for that big of a jump.  So I was deciding how I wanted to reattempt as we stood at the jump and he jumped it from a stand still!  I was caught off guard and fell forward over his neck as he came down.  Doh!  I landed on my head after sliding down his neck and grabbing whatever I could to make my landing softer.  I had to laugh at myself and I think Ricky was calling me an idiot as I brushed the dirt off and checked my myself for injuries.  I’ll be jumping more this week in hopes of getting more skill and understanding of good jumping technique.  Gemini has taught me a lot about riding the buck, so shouldn’t be too hard for me to learn to fly over jumps!

After the group broke for the day, Dave took 2 of us to play with flying changes.  The idea here was to set up the horse to do flying changes versus asking the horse to do them.  Basically, we used a huge bowtie pattern and we’d ride the rail sideways at a trot then canter off on that lead.  Each time we came into the fence we prepared to ask the horse for sideways in that direction. The horse prepares to do the sideways and in doing so, changes his lead.  I was riding the nicest flying changes ever without really asking for anything but a direction change.  The horse learned he’d be better off changing leads all by himself.

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Ricky is a really nice horse with plenty of go and plenty of whoa.  He does whatever I ask and helps me understand when my asks are not clear.  His attitude is that of the perfect partner.  Jody and I discussed getting into the more challenging horses after this clinic (day 4 for me).  For this clinic though, he’s helping me focus on my own learning by being a willing and trusting partner.

Can’t wait for day two.  We’ll start with the cows and do more of the ranch versatility work tomorrow.

Transforming a hoof

I have a small handful of clients that allow me to trim their barefoot horses.  For the most part, I’m just following basic practices for good hoof trims.  I research natural hooves often and I am constantly growing my knowledge and understanding of the equine hoof. About 18 months ago, I took on a horse with significantly deformed hooves.  This horse, a 16.2hh Thoroughbred mare, had been shod most of her life.  Her hinds had been left barefoot some of the time, but her fores were always shod.  Her owner was struggling with lameness constantly.  She also dealt with a sore-backed horse, even when the horse was very infrequently ridden.  She had reached her highest point of frustration and I decided to step in and ask that she let me help take the horse barefoot.  The owner was not a strong believer in barefoot practices, but she was desperate and ready to see what bare hooves would mean for her horse. During this 18 month period, I regret that I did not do a much better job of tracking the hoof changes.  Still, the pictures will give some idea of where the horse was and where the hoof progression is going.  Consider this article to be for general information.  For more scientific rehabilition info, I enjoy http://www.hoofrehab.com.

NOTE:  This horse owner loves and cares for her horses!  One of the challenges with horse-ownership, as most of us know, is that we trust our horse care to the professionals.  Sometimes, however, the people we trust don’t have the knowledge or skills to do right by our horses. She started with severely underrun heels, a long stretched and flared toe.  She often buckled over at the knee and I suspected it may have been due to living on her incorrectly angled hooves for so long.  I wondered if her coffin bone was distorted, but we didn’t have x-rays.

The mare's front right after 4-5 trims done on a 5-6 week basis.  Notice that the new hoof growing out from the coronary band is looking more correct.  The toe flare has to grow down to the ground before the hoof will look correct.

The mare’s front right after 4-5 trims done on a 5-6 week basis. Notice that the new hoof growing out from the coronary band looks more correct. The toe flare has to grow down to the ground before the hoof will look correct.

Her hinds had such sever quarter flares that she would often cut her own legs.  Part of the challenge with her hinds was that she was not a willing partner in hind foot care.  She was extremely uncomfortable with having a hind foot held and would kick in defense. I decided to just get to work and see how the hoof would change, while also trying to help her overcome her defensive nature with the hinds.

I learned many things along the way.  For example, she had flat-feet and fairly thin soles.  Her collateral groove was quite shallow compared to other horses I cared for.  (Again, I did not record the measurements along the way.  Shameful, I know.  Another lesson learned.)  Over time, she begin to develop slight concavity and her heel was moving further and further back.  Her toe flare improved, albeit slowly.  I was fairly conservative with my trims for fear of soaring this mare, but I could tell that the slow changes were getting the job done.

Her back soreness was slowly improving over the months that her feet were transofrming.  Her buckling over at the knee seemed to be less frequent, as well.  She was quite comfortable barefoot from the beginning.  She has large hooves and they flared very easily.  As her hoof changed, I noticed she was able to hold the shape for longer and longer periods.  In the beginning, we needed a 3-4 week trim but over time we were able to get to a 5-6 week trim.   

She is now ridden barefoot unless the terrain will be too rocky.  She has boots fitted that she happily wears when needed.  In the beginning she needed an extremely large boot – size 4-5, depending on the boot style and brand.  Now, she is wearing size 2.5 – 3.  I imagine as her hoof shape continues to round and angles continue to find normal, her hoof may get slightly more compacted and strong and maybe need an even smaller size.

1 year later.  This mare is sound, less back sore, and riding on the trail completely barefoot.

1 year later. This mare is sound, less back sore, and riding on the trail completely barefoot.

This has been a very rewarding journey!  I enjoyed helping this mare find more comfort and helping the owner see the value of allowing horses to be barefoot.  Barefoot may not make sense for every single horse, but I certainly believe most horses can do their jobs quite well without metal shoes applied.

Natural Horse Boarding: Living on the track

About 7 years ago, I found Jaime Jackson’s Paddock Paradise book about natural boarding. This was just a short time after I began to discover the magical wellness of barefoot horses. I immediately embraced the concept and decided to implement my own “track system”, where horses would never be kept in stalls or runs and would be free to move 24 hours a day. What a fabulous success it has been!

Horses coming in for the daily grain feeding.

Horses coming in for the daily grain feeding.

The key to healthy and happy horses is MOVEMENT!  The track sets up an environment where horses are virtually always on the move. To accomplish this, the track covers about 6500′ of hard, compacted dirt. There is little to no vegetation growing on the track itself. Water is kept only at the barn, in one corner of the system. Hay is fed all along the track in slow feeders and available 24 hours per day.Horses move from feeder to feeder, then meander all the way back for water several times per day. Additionally, grain is fed once per day. Horses are called in for their grain, some happily cantering in, some slowly making their way to the barn at “dinner time”. Once they are done with their grain, they make their way back to the hay feeder of their choosing.

Lots of hoof prints in the snow as horses make their way around the track.

Lots of hoof prints in the snow as horses make their way around the track.

Based on what I observe with their behavior, I imagine each horse covers 5-10 miles per day. The track has water to cross, rocks to step on, and rolling hills to climb up and down. They stay strong, fairly fit and their hooves are amazing. They are growing thicker hoof walls, stronger soles and bigger, healthier frogs. I am able to grab my endurance horse off the track with very little conditioning and race a strong 25 mile race.

Additionally, in the 7 years I’ve kept horses this way, I have not had one single colic. Horses are calmer as they are able to take a run whenever they need it. They tend to move in the natural way of low poll, at or even below the withers. Their backs are strong and healthy. I have fewer injuries, joint issues, no ulcers, no vices… the need for a vet to come onsite has decreased dramatically.

They interact with each other and play, they spur each other into sessions of cantering at times to keep things interesting for themselves. Their social needs are met and all the movement seems to enable a calm and peaceful existence.

A few times a week, I’ll give the horses access to the grass in the middle of the track system for a day. They enjoy the grazing and I get a small break in my hay costs. The track means I’ve always got grass for grazing, another benefit for property management.

Grain from mesh bags so that every horse gets their specific rations and no grain ends up wasted.

Grain from mesh bags so that every horse gets their specific rations and no grain ends up wasted.

The track system has allowed my horses to live in a way that more aligns with how they are designed to live. They cover lots of ground, eat as they need to and don’t have empty bellies. I provide lots of different types of forage and feed to help ensure all their nutritional needs are met. They are simply healthier and happier, and I am able to maintain pastures they can graze.

I truly hope this type of horse-keeping will become more mainstream. I always have a waiting list and the news of natural boarding seems to be slowly getting the attention it deserves. Movement is the key to happy horses.

Stay tuned for more posts about the track system in detail.

Turning Loose – Thoughts for the Human

Ray Hunt, a great horseman and colt-starter, published a DVD titled “Turning Loose”.  This term, “turning loose”, has caused me to scratch my head through the years.  Some days, I think I know just what that means and others I think I’m only scratching the surface of the depth of the term.   This summer, life set me up to understand this idea in a deep way.

I try to  train horses.  I try to train people.  I am constantly looking for the horse or the human (or when I’m helping a partnership, I’m looking for both) to “turn loose”.  In other words, I’m looking for the student or the horse to say, “I’ve got it.  I can do this, no problem.  And I’m not worried about what may go wrong.  I’m confident with this motion or action.”

I was with a master horseman, Dave Ellis, in May this year.  He talked about helping the horse find “comfort in motion”.  To me, I immediately equated this to “turning loose”.  For example, I might ask my horse to trot the arena rail with me until he finds comfort in it.  I might help him maintain that trot on the rail until the horse accepts the responsibility of trotting the rail and owns the task.  Sooner or later, I no longer have to correct the horse for slowing down to a walk or speeding up to a canter or leaving the rail.  He is simply turned loose to the action and has stopped looking for comfort elsewhere.  Now, there’s a difference between a horse that is doing the task with tension.  I would help the horse find relaxation while trotting on the rail.  Relaxation is much more comfortable than tension while trotting the rail.  I might make sure I’m responding to every attempt the horse makes to relax with a positive feel, while making sure I’m not holding on to a single bit of tension myself. IMG_1120 Eventually, this horse finds comfort in trotting the rail because I’m quiet and relaxed, he’s quiet and relaxed and together we are going somewhere comfortably.  That lovely sound a horse makes when he blows and exhales while allowing the poll to rest at or below the withers would tell me we were getting something great done.

Recently, I suffered an injury while trimming a very troubled horse.  My knee was dislocated and I needed surgery to walk again.  I had a slew of emotions during this period.  I was angry about losing time with my students and the horses. I was frustrated as business was going quite well and I had plenty of work that I’d have to put on hold.  I was sad and lonely, as the world was continuing to evolve outside my window and I was unable to join.  I had plenty of time to think and process my situation…  two weeks waiting for the operation, two weeks of nearly full-time bed-rest, then the beginning of rebuilding, physical therapy, and feeling very clumsy and unable, with crutches and a knee brace.

What I realized a few days after the surgery was this:  it was time for ME to “turn loose”.  I ask my horses, my students and their horses, to turn loose all the time.  When was I going to realize this was my opportunity to exercise my own ability to turn loose and find comfort in immobility.  There was nothing I could do to heal any faster or change my situation.  The injury had happened and that was that.

When I had this revelation, I realized this was my opportunity to really understand what turning loose is all about.  I had the chance to explore the emotions and find the actions that would allow me to find comfort in the moment.  I had to make a change and figure out how to be fine, just like my horse trotting the rail, because I’ve set him up to do that.  My horse would rather be grazing with the herd, but I’ve put him in a situation where he’s got to make the best of it and release himself to it.  Maybe, if I’m doing things well, my horse even starts to enjoy it.  Maybe, if I’m improving on myself, I can learn to enjoy this time of healing?

I knew I had to stop dwelling on the negative and focus on the positive.  The negative things were easy to see – I was out of commission, I couldn’t earn money, I couldn’t progress myself, my students, my horses.  I couldn’t ride.  I couldn’t go for a walk, a run, a hike.  I couldn’t drive.  The list goes on and on.  I finally started to focus on all the things I COULD do.Caugt someone reading in a funny position and this shot came out of it.

I was finding a lot of enjoyment in reading.  When would I ever get a chance to read this many books?  I was finding myself watching a lot of videos on horse training, stimulating my own thoughts and feeling through memories of moments with horses and how I might approach them differently next time.  Even better, finding ideas for things I’ve never tried that would stretch me, my horses and my students.

I was able to lay in bed and talk to my kids without being distracted.  I’m a Type-A girl, so my mind is always racing and thinking forward.  I know that causes me to sometimes miss the enjoyment of the present.  I was practicing living in that very moment, a great exercise for me.  I was finding high doses of love and intimacy from my marriage.  My husband was happy to care for me, bring me meals, handle my whimsical needs (would you pass me this, or bring me that?).  My children stepped up to the plate and helped with whatever we asked.  I was practicing dependence, a huge task for me and my progression as a better human being.

And at some point, I took my first steps without crutches.  This place I’d turned loose to wasn’t my forever place.  It was just for right now.  I was elated to begin the process of truly walking again and regaining my freedom.  I also realized I’d have to leave the comfort I’d found in being out of commission and it surprised me to feel a little strange about that.  My Type-A brain immediately wondered, had I gotten enough done?  Had I taken full advantage of being down?

Now, as I continue to rebuild strength, I am working hard to remember the things I learned through this process.  Live in the moment, enjoy the “right now”.  Find comfort in my actions (or inactions) when life throws me off course.  Learn all I can, always – keep growing through the good and the bad times.  Find the silver lining, because it’s surely there, ready to give me a peaceful feeling.

I’d learned what turning loose really feels like.  I’d found comfort in my situation and all that it entailed.  I just needed the time to do it.  I imagine I’ll turn loose more quickly if there’s a next time.  I know my horses turn loose much more quickly than I do with each transition I suggest.  Oh, how the horses teach me.

 “If I’ve helped the human, I’ve helped the horse. If I’ve helped the horse, I’ve helped the human.”  – Ray Hunt

Five Days with a Master

For 5 or 6 years now, I’ve managed to find time yearly to study horsemanship with David Ellis, 5* Parelli instructor.  My first time as his student was so monumental to my growth, that every year when he came to town I’d be there, ready to learn.  I’ve studied with numerous horseman and women, but Dave Ellis is the one who stretches me like no other.  I always walk away feeling like I’ve soared to new heights and I can go home and get higher levels of results from the horses I’m training.  Additionally, my arsenal is stocked and loaded to take my students to their new heights.  I’ve even gone to his ranch in California to get further doses of his knowledge.me and Gem Ellis clinic 2013

This year was no different, except that it was.  Jodi Grimm, Dave’s wife, was also there to help teach.  She is now a 3-star Parelli instructor and was there to offer help and support, which added to the clinic in a deep way.

There are 2 parts to this post; a summary of the information and exercises we covered, and a summary of my personal experience.  This allows you to focus on what you choose.

The Information and Exercises

The clinic was 5 days, with the first 3 focusing on preparation for the cow work during days 4 and 5.  We started the first morning with Dave talking about the prey/predator relationship.  One student had a horse who wanted to graze and the student didn’t want that.  Dave spent some time helping use the idea of comfort and discomfort to set boundaries for the horse by applying light rhythmic pressure on the horses back.

We worked a while on moving the hind with a subtle ask and helping the horse feel our intentions of a more energetic ask.  This exercise would be a recurring theme throughout the 5 days (but, of course!).  Dave calls this “crouching tiger, hidden dragon”.  The idea is that if I bend over slightly to the hind, it should be moving.  If it doesn’t, I bend over more and go get it – like a fire-breathing dragon.  This exercise helps the horse become acutely aware of the human and prepares the horse to turn loose of his hind end.

When the human is actively facing the horse, the horse should respond with 2 eyes facing the human.  If not, we would use the hind end to cause the horse to face us squarely.  We also played with using steady pressure to get the back up by pointing over the horse.  If steady pressure wasn’t enough, we’d add rhythm.  The idea was to help the horse understand our intent and focus with a steady feel.

We then put the horse on the circle (not circle game) and asked the horse to yield his hind to us while continuing to move forward.  Dave does this exercise in most clinics I’ve attended and it’s a neat feeling to talk to that inside hind and ask the horse to step it under just a bit and then continue forward, while never breaking gait.

We played a lot with moving the fore and hind mounted, from a halt, and from all 3 gaits.  He wanted us to be more particular about asking when the horse was setup to respond positively (when the correct foot was ready to leave the ground).

Dave talked about tempo and asking the horse to feel the tempo of the rider and get into rhythm.  For example, at the trot, the rider should have a specific tempo in mind and be particular with the horse to join in that tempo.  Then, ask the horse to turn loose at that tempo and settle into it, finding a release to be allowed to be quiet in that movement.  Dave called this “comfort in motion”.

We worked on get a positive response from the hind in the saddle, using the reins as phase 4.  We’d hold the reins straight up while asking the horse to yield the hind.  The reins stopped the forward while we worked on teaching the horse to follow the feel of the hind request.  This particular method was new to me.

We played with a lot of synchronized riding in groups of 2’s, 3’s and 4’s.  We played with turning in sync, gait transitions and more.DSCN1391

**If you have to go to phase 4 to teach a horse, be sure that you give a release that’s even bigger than the phase 4 pressure you applied.

Day 4 we started focusing on cow-working.  We started with exercises to prepare the horse and human for the cows.  We did rollbacks with a partner playing the part of the cow.  We talked a lot of teaching the cow AND the horse when working cattle.  We played with turning the cow a full 360 degrees on his hind, splitting the cattle, tailing a cow, stopping a cow.  Dave discussed the pressure focus point behind the ear of a cow to get the cow to turn.  We played with counter-arching around the cow to get the cow turning in place.

We finished the clinic playing with Campjouring and Team Penning.

As always, there was a healthy dose of discussions on the horse turning loose to us, teaching the horse to hunt the comfort and remembering to ALWAYS deal with the opposition the horse presents right away.

gem and i at de clinic 2013 - 2

My Personal Experience

My gelding, Gemini, has been in my life for 6-7 years.  He is now my main horse since I lost my mare partner in March this year.  I wasn’t sure how he’d do with cows, with the exercises, with herd sweetness that he develops so easily, the pressure…  but he was a champ and never let me down.  We grew together in this clinic unlike ever before and I raised my expectations of him to a new height.  I became more aware of some of the ways I was allowing opposition with Gemini, which allow him to question my leadership.  Gem needs me to be more aware of those moments and show him that I notice and help him turn loose in those moments.  Dave seemed to like Gem and let me know that he was the right horse to get me through level 5 and beyond.  That was nice to hear and gave me even more faith in my fine gelding.

It was a neat experience going with a group of friends.  I’ve always attending clinics on my own, so this was quite different.  I enjoyed it!  My reflection time after the day was over was a change from how I normally do things, but the reflection time in our discussions was great.  Each of us in the group felt our horse/human partnerships growing and evolving rapidly.  DSCN1413

Gem is a “bucking horse”, meaning early on he learned that bucking would make the pressure go away.  Although he’s been generally trustworthy, there have been times when he’s resorted to bucking when I wasn’t expecting it.  Dave and Jodi set it up for Gem and me to focus on this and get past it on day 2.  This was brilliant for my development!  All the horses and riders stayed on 1 end of the arena and Gem and I went cantering into the other direction.  This is typically a scenario where Gem would buck.  He did hump a little, but each time I felt him consider it, Dave had me bend him with a lot of energy for a bit and then ask him to back up with energy.  The backing would wind him up and we’d canter off again.  At one point, I was asking him to bend with so much energy he almost fell over!  However, after that round, his canter was more free and he was more willing than ever.  See, I think we needed to go there and I needed the support to handle whatever happened.  Great learning experience for me and it set the tone for the remaining 3 days with my equine partner.  We were changed.

Jody also helped me with Gem’s left lead.  This was great as Gemini and I struggle with the left lead.  I’m sure it’s me and how my body is positioned, but I’d love to get that lead more consistently.  The right comes naturally.  We were focusing on freestyle techniques with leads and I was trying to use finesse riding to get the lead. I’ve got to practice with this more this summer.

I have lots to play with this summer and I’m recommitted to getting my level 4 completed.  I finished level 3 in 2009 and I have focused on other parts of my development since then.  Gem is certainly ready to start filming and I finally am there, too.  It hasn’t been about the skill or the tasks, but more about priorities.  Dave and Jodi helped me get refocused on my Parelli journey and I’m thankful.

The Trouble with “K”

I got a call from someone seeking help with their OTTB (Off The Track Thoroughbred) mare, who was a couple years into her 2nd career as an eventing horse.  I’ve met plenty of lovely OTTB’s who learn to slow down and respond to their handler after spending a lot of their time running their hearts out for their humans.  They make can make quite nice partners.  Apparently, this mare, however, was chasing away trainers.  The owner realized something different needed to be done to get this horse performing.

I was excited to meet her and expected her to be an LBE (left-brained extrovert).  LBE’s can often be quite a handful and if you add the athleticism of an OTTB, things can quickly get out of hand.  This mare knocked my socks off immediately!  Her play drive was astounding and her athleticism, well, let’s just say I saw the bottom of her hooves plenty of times in our first session.  This was going to be an amazing challenge for both the horse and for me.

I tried to engage her brain every chance I could.  I never walked her through her stall door forward, always backward.  I let her smell things.  I asked her to be fast, then slow, then fast again.  I taught her to “stick to me” and “mirror me”.  She learned things faster than most horses I’ve played with, not surprisingly.  I had a smile on my face the whole time.  This horse is a horsewoman’s dream horse.

Playful horses love the ball

Playful horses love the ball

One of the habits she’d developed, the one that chased away trainers the best, was her frequent rearing.  When being warmed up on the lunge line, she would often rear.  She’s a tall mare, probably 16’2″ with shod hooves and long, long legs.  A strike from a front hoof of a horse coming down from a rear is much more likely to kill a human than a kick from a hind hoof.  Also, if she rears on the ground, she’s likely to rear in the saddle.  No one wants to ride THAT!

I was focused on this behavior and wanted to see it for myself, thinking maybe I could figure out “what happens before what happens happens” (Pat Parelli).  What did she see or feel before the rear that I could possibly address?  I learned a couple of things…  1)  she seemed to do it mainly at the canter and 2) she did it whenever she got near “K”.  In case you don’t know, in the dressage world an arena will have letters marking spots along the perimeter.  These letters are used to help develop precision when riding, getting a gait transition or pattern to happen precisely at a single letter.  This horse had a major problem with “K”.

Staying calm while she gets extreme

Staying calm while she gets extreme

At first, I thought there were other things around that spot that frightened her.  I looked for shadows, a funny spot on the arena wall, a change in the footing…  This mare would hit an invisible wall at this part of the arena!  She would canter to it, then go straight into the air with the front end, turn on the haunches and end up facing the opposite direction.  I’ve seen horses display this sort of behavior, but never consistently at one spot.

So I asked the owner, who was watching the same behavior from this mare she’d seen dozens of time.  “Is there something going on at ‘K’ that I should know about?”  She thought for a second and answered, “No, but now that you mention it, she does typically display this behavior at that spot.”  How interesting!

Whatever it was, I needed to use a solid ‘approach and retreat’ plan to get her over the emotion about “K”.  She was beginning to understand that I would not ask her to canter through this Bermuda Triangle, I would only ask that she walk through it.  And her reward for walking through it would be leaving for another safer area in the arena.

About 15 minutes later, the owner says to me, “I know what it is.  I hope you don’t think I’m crazy when I tell you this.  The previous owner of this property buried her beloved mare under the this arena.  The mare is buried right in that spot.”  She had an incredulous look on her face and I instantly knew — that was the information this horse was trying to tell us dense humans.  This was a sacred area and she was very uncomfortable crossing over it.  I felt relief wash over me.  At least now I knew what I was dealing with.

The owner explained that the woman who had buried her mare there would come yearly with a wreath she would hang right over the letter “K”.  She would memorialize her lost mare in that spot yearly until eventually she moved out of state.  The amount of emotional energy she left behind must have been very high!  And this amazing mare felt it, even if the other horses who used the arena did not.

I’ve had about 4 sessions with this mare now and she’s better each time.  She can canter past “K” usually, but the last session I was riding her and she unexpectedly spooked sideways at “K”.  It will take more time for her to understand that she will be ok in that area and in the meantime, I’m doing everything I can to honor the sacred area and the emotions it causes in this amazing mare.

Forward and relaxed

Forward and relaxed

The things horses will tell us when we’re listening.  This mare has reinforced a valuable lesson for me about developing horses.  I must remember to respect what the horse is telling me, even if it’s invisible to me.  If the horse says it’s so, then it’s so and I must adapt and help the horse overcome it.

I will continue to write about this fantastic horse and her development.  I just know she’s going to be fine and her future is bright.