A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Tom Thumb Bit (what it is, and is not)

This bit is a Tom Thumb bit..  The Tom Thumb is considered a very severe bit, and should not be put into the hands of a novice, or hard handed rider.

Now, yesterday I posted a slightly different bit.  A broken mouth, or jointed mouth curb.  At that point, people said that it was a tom thumb, and conversations (which are a good thing) began about it's usefulness and severity.  My teaching in bits has always been based in English riding, but in recent years I have begun to cross over.  So, with that in mind, I went and started reading up on what is now a tom thumb bit.  It seems that things have changed a bit (not much though) and the category has grown.  I think this is both good and bad. 

So, I have to publicly do a correction.  The bit I first posted yesterday, is now included in the category of Tom Thumbs.

And I have to apologize right here at the start.  I didn't exactly have a ton of free time, but I wanted to make sure I got that correction out there.  So, while I'm at it, I thought I'd clarify a few things about the tom thumb bit while I was at it.  (This will not be my most clear and instructional post ever.  Just think of it as a stepping stone to good things yet to come.) 

Let me begin by explaining what a tom thumb is.

 A true, old style (and rather harsh) tom thumb bit has rings that attach to the bridle (red circle) with the curb chain attaching at the same spot.  This ring, or set of rins, as in the picture shown here, results in a large bulky area.  When the bit is engaged laterally (i.e. pull out to the side) the rings pivot and stick into the horse's face.  No one wants to be jabbed in teh side of the cheek, including your horse, and this is considered uncomfortable.

Secondly, the bit attaches to the mouthpiece with a pivot (green circle).  Especially important here is the shape and style of the connection.  When the side of the bit is pivoted, but the mouth piece isn't, a lip or other facial skin can very easily get caught and pinched.  Again, pain is not a good training device.

Third, the shank is straight, not curved like most curbs (blue lines).  This means that each pound of pressure exerted gives that much more pressure on the face, without long shanks.  You have to have a bit of physics knowledge here to figure out the true numbers, but I'll make some up to use as an example.  If you push on the lever shown at the left, on the empty side, with one poind of pressure, you will move the side with the orange triangle with 5 pounds of pressure.  If the lever was longer, it would exert more pressure.  Twice as long might give 10 pounds of pressure for every 1 pound the person pushes. 

Now, if you look it it the other way, and you push down on the side with the orange cone, you are not gaining an advantage (or not as much, I was NOT a physics dork).  At any rate, using a curved shank, rather then a straight one, means that a portion of the lever action is reduced.  So, you spend more time pivoting the lever on itself, rather then applying the pressure on the end.

Not the best description, I know, but the easiest thing to do is to try it at home.  So, lets just go with this, straight shank, means bit pulls harder on horse's mouth for every inch of shank then a curved one.

Lastly, the simple joint mouthpiece (pink circle).  When used with a curb, this causes a strong nutcracker effect on the horse's jaw.  A 3 piece mouth piece can reduce the pinch effect, but it depends upon the shape of the middle link.

So this was the bit I posted yesterday which was called a tom thumb.  You can see it does fit some of those criteria, but not all.It has the rings that would poke in the face, the hinges that might pinch, but it also has a three piece mouth piece, and curved shanks.

But I have a problem with calling anything that has lever action and a jointed mouth piece a "tom thumb".  That would mean that my pelham bits are tom thumbs, my gag bits are tom thumbs, my "argentine snaffles" (which are NOT a snaffle) are tom thumbs.  All of these bits are very different, and have different uses. 

Now, I happen to own a tom thumb bit, and I actually use it.  On ONE horse, and only I am allowed to ride him in it.  Boo goes well in my tom thumb, and works nicely in it.  Keep in mind that this horse is very highly trained, and I spent years with an instructor who liked to whack my hands if I did anything that could cause the horse problems.  I have VERY soft hands now.  I ride Boo in one to get him engaging his back.  I can tickle a finger for a lateral cue (which will not pivot the mouth piece causing poking or pinching) and I use the curb action to put a wall in front of him so he stops pulling his "I'm an Arab and my nose can point sky high" thing.  (No, not all arabs do that, but Boo sure tries to play the stereotype at times).  He takes most of his aids from my seat and legs, but the bit is severe enough that he knows it is there, and carries it lightly.  This is a great way to recondition him from a long time off.

So there's one example of a horrible and evil bit being used in a perfectly kind and gentle manner.  It works for that horse, and it's actually one of the bits he prefers.  Like all training tools though, it's not just about what the horse needs, but also what the rider can control.  I have seen people try to grab my bridle with the tom thumb on it, and I have a mild panic attack.  It's not an "every day" kind of training aid.

So.  Did any of you know that this bit is also called a tom thumb?  It is a completely different style of bit all together.  This mild snaffle has both the gentle blur of the O ring, with the full cheek effect.  I don't know a thing about it, have never seen one in person, but it looks like something that might be a wonderful tool for starting out babies.  And yet, it has the same name as a bit that is often said to be simply horrible.

So lets also look at what a tom thumb is NOT.

There's the jointed mouth pelham.  I personally LOVE this bit.  It gives me a lot of flexibility when training (this is not a bit I start horses in, but rather one I like for finishing work).  I can use the snaffle rein for lateral commands (side to side pulling stuff) and the crub rein for impulsion.  In some cases, I like having that curb rein there just as an "emergency brake".

In fact, that is the bit I used to retrain Poko to stop pulling through the bridle, and start listening to my seat.  A short necked, strong muscled, physically fit half draft can easily out pull me.  Adding in a bit of an emergency brake allowed me to get him listening to the snaffle rein.  Within a month, I had transitioned him back down to a "baby snaffle" (I like to use a fat mouthed, soft french link, O ring snaffle).  I also like to use this bit, with two sets of reins, when teaching a horse to move into a curb.  They can feel the pinch and head pressure that a curb applies, while having the sinple snaffle commands that they know and are comfortable with.  So if you go through and see a horse wearing two sets of reins, it is likely that I have the horse in one of these.

But, there is also the Argentinian snaffle, which is a misnomer. This bit has leverage action, and so it is a curb. It has curved shanks that reduce the pressure, a 3 piece mouth piece (hmm, this sounds kinda familiar, maybe like the bit I had yesterday?) and a simple and soft ring to attach to the bridle.

Look closely, and you can see that the pivot point between the sides and the mouth is a longer shape.  The way this attaches in the horse's mouth makes it harder for the horse to get a lip pinched.

Basically, the major flaws in a tom thumb have been slightly redesigned, and corrected.  This is still not a bit that should be used lightly though.  Depending upon whether this bit is used with, or without a curb chain makes a world of difference in how it is perceived by a horse.

If used with a curb chain, the rider must have soft and gentle hands.  The flexible mouth piece along with lever action and a pinch between the mouth and chin (curb chains do that) would mean that a little bobble on the head gives the horse a very bit OUCH.  I tend to think of this bit as the little sister to a tom thumb.

Next there is the gag bit.  Now, I'm a bit weak in all the mechanics of this bit, but let me show you 2 different styles:

The top one looks a lot like that tom thumb, doesn't it?  The big deal with these bits is that they are NOT used with a curb chain.  That completely changes everything about how they affect the horse.  (And before you ask, I will do an entire post on gag and elevator bits.  I just need to do a little research first to make sure my limited knowledge is correct)

Now, when you look at all those bits, you can see that they are very different.  They work in slightly different ways, and have different pros and cons.  No piece of tack is with out a downside, and anything can harm a horse if used wrong, but none of them are evil on their own.

So, as I go through the various types of bits, and all the parts that go with them, you may end up seeing some very serious hardware.  Before you close your mind to the usefulness of any training aid, just remember, in the right hands, with the right knowledge, and used on the right horse, it might be the difference between mastering a technique, or being sold on.

Because I do so much work with horses that have bad training (much worse then no training IMO) I often have to un-teach things.  Some of the tack I will be talking about is used for just that purpose.  My goal through the next few days, is to make horse owners understand what those strange devices are for, and even more importantly, be able to recognize when they are being used wrong.

I've always felt that no training device has ever hurt a horse on its own.  It's not the tool that can be bad, it's the human behind it.

Mwahahha, it's Haloween!


Here is hoping that all of my friends have a wonderful, safe, and happy Halloween. 
May you all get lots of candy!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is it a Snaffle, or is that a Curb bit?

Since I'm rained out for a bit, I'm going to talk about tack a bit.  I asked on my facebook page, and quite a few people were interested to learn about bits.  So, here's the first big lesson:  what makes a bit a snaffle or a curb.

Most people look at a bit like this, see the mouth piece with multiple parts, and assume that means it's a snaffle.  I have heard them called things like "Shanked snaffle" or in one case a "Western Snaffle" but that's completely wrong.

That bit, is a curb bit.

The difference between a curb bit and a snaffle bit, is whether or not it has leverage.  It has nothing to do with what goes into the horse's mouth.  A shank is leverage.  It causes the bit to pivot around a central point, and this puts pressure onto different parts of the horse's face then a direct pressure, or snaffle bit, does.

Here is my pretty orphan baby (not so baby any more) Cayenne.  The bit in her mouth here is a curb because it has a shank, and shanks mean leverage.  What you can't see, is that it has a mouth piece very similar to the one above.

Now, in all honesty, I can't recall if she had a curb chain on for these pictures, as they were just for pretties (and she hates bits for riding) but lets assume that she does, and we just can't see it.  I'm pretty sure it'll be all in our imagination though.

So, the way a curb works is to pivot around a central point, the mouth piece, and create pressure to guide the horse.  When the rein, which is attached to the lower ring is pulled back towards the rider, the upper ring will push out toward the horse's nose.

The blue arrows (because I don't want to type out turquoise over and over again, we will call them blue) show you the direction the rings move.  Now, if those rings move that way, they will pull on the leather they are attached to.
That causes the leather to move in the directions of the yellow lines.  The reins move back toward the rider, and the crown is pulled lower toward the horse's mouth as the bit pivots.
That will put pressure on these areas.  The pink arrow shows the pressure of the bit in the horse's mouth.  The green arrow shows the pressure of the curb chain against the horse's chin. The blue arrow shows the pressure of the leather crown piece against the horse's poll.

This is how lever action works on a bit.  And the harder you pull, the more you pivot the bit, and the more pressure is applied at all of these points.

Now, compare that to a direct pressure bit.  This is what we normally call snaffle bits (although, it's horse tack, so we can always get more detailed.  We like our complex names for everything!).

This is Poko in a snaffle bit.  You can see how the rein attaches directly in line with the pull on the bit.  The bit does not pivot in the horse's mouth, rather it simply goes where it is pulled.  The resulting pressure on a horse is much more simple and straight forward.

Can you see now how a snaffle might be considered a more simple and direct aid to a horse?  There's no pressure across the head, just a simple and plain pressure on the mouth.

The blue arrow shows where the pressure is exerted on the horse.  From the rein, through the rein.

Now, of course there is some shifting of the bridle, and you can see that in this picture, but the shifting puts minimal pressure on the horse's face.  It's minimal enough that we can discount it as an aid in most horses.

And as you can see here, there are many ways of attaching a bit to the bridle.  Gag, D rings, O rings, multiple rings.  I am going to get into all of that later.

Today I just wanted to talk about the 2 classes of bits.  Now, not all bits fit clearly into one of these categories.  Some bits, such as a Pelham, can fit in both depending upon how they are used. 

The Pelham has rings at both the bit, and on a shank.  This means that depending upon where you attach your reins will determine what type of bit pressure you are using on your horse.

Katy here has the rein attached to the curb ring.  If she was ridden like this, then the bridle would only have leverage action, and would be no different then a normal curb.  The mouth piece on the particular pelham is exactly the same as the above, with a broken mouth and french link, or dogbone.

If I moved the rein up to the larger ring that is adjacent to the mouth piece, then the bit would work exactly like the snaffle bit.  The leverage action would never be called into use, because the pressure would always be from a point inline with the mouth.

The beauty of the Pelham though, is that you can use multiple sets of reins on it.  I love using these bits to bring a snaffle horse up to using a curb.  While some horses take the change easily and in stride, others do not.  Cayenne is one example of a horse that had NO interest in the multiple pressures of a curb bit on her face.

I also like this bit for hot headed horses.  My darling jumper mare, Ash, used to ride in a Pelham when she was still jumping (she's retired now).  I rode mainly on the snaffle rein, but after a combination, she would get so excited that she locked her neck, hollowed out, and blundered around.  A touch on the curb would send pressure across her crown and chin resulting in her ducking her head back and coming onto the bit again.  Now, Ash was not a fancy mover, and her main style of going was to lock her neck straight out like a 2 x 4, so for her, a duck back into the bit was necessary to keep proper contact on her bars, not her lips.

So think of the categories of bits as a broad concept.  One of the analogies I like is the categories of dogs in the AKC.  You can have a "herding" dog, or a "sporting" dog, but that doesn't necessarily tell you the exact breed of dog.  If the herding dog a border collie, or a corgie?  Snaffle and curb bits are the same.  Inside each of those categories are other sub categories, such as the type of ring attachment (O, D, Eggbut) or style of shank (elevator, grazing, etc).

We'll talk about all of that stuff over the next few days, and possibly months.  And of course, please let me know if you want me to talk about something in particular.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bits, Spurs, Whips - Tools of the Trade

What a lovely horse, right?  She looks like she's working, but is enjoying her work. The rider is quiet, out of her way, and the pair makes a lovely image.

But look closer.

That poor beast is covered in cruel and abusive objects!  She has 2 bits in her mouth, a snaffle and a curb.  The rider is wearing spurs, and I can't really tell, but I think he's using a whip on the far side.

All too often, we hear people speak of things such as spurs, whips, draw reins, and other training devices as if they are made for torture.  In reality, that is far FAR from the truth.  These aids can be used to harm a horse, but so can an ill fitting saddle, yet we don't decry saddles as being abusive, do we?

The reality of course, is some where in the middle, and goes back to how we think about our skills in the saddle.

All too often, people want the HORSE to be trained, but they forget about their own needs for training.  I'm not saying you need to run out and pay some stranger a lot of money.  Rather we as humans need to understand the logic, and practice the use, and be aware of how we affect the horses, before we should touch many of these aids!

And don't think it's just an English thing either.  That roping horse there has on a tie down, bosal, curb bit, the rider has spurs, and I'm not even sure of the name for the device that encourages the horse to keep tension on the rope.  That's a lot of stuff for a horse to deal with.

So why do we do it?  Why all the stuff?  Why can't we just ride our horses with the least amount of tack necessary to keep us all comfortable?

Well, we could, but we wouldn't get the same level of response between the human and the horse.  As sports become more competitive, we work hard to be the best.  In many cases that means refining our technique, and using more subtle, or more specific commands to ask for more nuanced reactions.  In other words, mushing around on the horse's back is a pretty broad signal, but lightly touching in an area the size of a quarter is a very specific question.

And really, that's all aids should do.  They ask a question, and the horse gives an answer.  The problem comes in when the horse answers wrong, and those aids are used for punishment, and most often, when those aids are used by idiots who don't know what they are for.

Remember how I mentioned draw reins?  Well, that is NOT how they should be used.  That is torture!

Over flexing a horse, and forcing it into that position is called Rollkur.  Way back many years ago, Rollkur was a form of stretching, and that is how it was taught to me.  When you have been working your horse hard, and his back starts feeling stiff, you walk him on a loose rein for a bit, and then ask  him to over flex for a few seconds.  Maybe 10 to 15 seconds at most.  This is similar to sitting cross legged, and tucking your chin to your chest, and then pulling on the top of your head.  It stretches all of the muscles down the back, and that stretch feels very good.

Now, some riders (*cough* Anky *cough*) are forcing their horses to work in this frame.  Some western riders are doing the same thing.  The saddest part of this, is that I can drive down the main highway here, and see hundreds of horses being worked in this over flexed position.

So why do they do it?  Because it's winning, and winning makes money, and money feeds their families.  It becomes very easy to justify these techniques when they win, and to convince yourself that because the horse likes you, that all is well with using these methods to train.  It's not.  Horses like humans because they are created to be herd animals.  They follow a strong leader.  That's it.  Their love does not mean that harmful training methods are a good thing.

And yet, rollkur started as a good thing, but became a bad one.  Like so many things in the horse world, there really is no black or white.  It's just all shades of grey.  I will gladly whip my horses in the right situations.  If whipping the horse will prevent it from killing itsself.  If whipping the horse prevents it from killing someone else.  or if whipping the horse might save its life (getting a down horse to stand).  I will not whip my horse because he missed a transition, or is having a bad day. 

So lets talk about whips first.  A whip is a method of touching the horse in a specific area which you can not otherwise touch when riding.  Look at this lady riding side saddle here.  She can't exactly give the horse a cue on the right side, because both of her legs are on the left, so a whip is used instead.

The whip can be touched or tapped, just as your heel can be.  And trust me, horses hit each other a lot harder then any one with a flimsy fiberglass whip can hit them.  I know, I've been hit by both.

Now, most horse people have figured out that a horse will move away from pressure.  So if you want a horse to go forward, you tap it on the hind end.  If you want a horse to go back, you tap it on the front end.  To go over, you tap on the inside so the horse steps away from the touch.  None of this means that you hit the horse hard enough to leave a welt.

When working with young or hot blooded horses, in many cases you can't simply turn or lean and tap them.  Off setting your balance that much is a great way to eat some dirt.  Using a whip allows you to touch more of the horse while staying balanced and out of the horse's way, so the horse can move easily.

Lunge whips are another example.  The whip is a visual aid to the horse.  When you put pressure behind the horse, simply by moving the whip toward it, the horse moves forward.  The speed you move the whip gives the horse an idea of the speed you want it to move at.  Using this visual aid, you can easily teach a horse verbal commands, and no longer need the lunge whip to attain the desired gait.

And then there are spurs.  I often use spurs, and I actually just purchased a set of western type spurs to use in training.  Now, my goal is to train the horses to accept spurs, so I wanted something very mild that would roll.  Needless to say, I also got a bit foofy, and have some etching in the pair I purchased, but they were on sale!

Er, I digress.

So, the purpose of a spur is NOT to make your horse look like that one.  Instead, they should be used to give a more precise aid for a specific movement.  With my horses, they are trained that a touch on the side means to go forward, but a touch further back means to back up.  So what happens if you bobble your legs as you squeeze?

Now, my higher level horses have more commands then that.  Touching more forward means to move the shoulders, a lift means to lift either the shoulder or the back (depending upon where I touch) and a brush means to engage the hind end.  All of these aids might be given in an area the size of my hand, but near my pinky is a very different area then down near my thumb.  If I'm using an aid the size of my boot, how does the horse judge where the point of the aid is?

The biggest problem I see with spurs are riders with no control of their legs.  I often have people complain that their horse "won't go" and ask if they are going to need spurs.  Oh hell no!  If you can't use your butt to make your horse move, then you sure don't need something spikey on your flopping wobbley legs that is going to be jabbing the horse at every step!

If your toes are pointing east and west, then that means your heels, and the spurs that would stick off of those heels, is likely pointing right into your horse's ribs.  If you can't keep your heels pointed away from the horse, and stable, then you have no ability to control your spurs.

I find it very interesting to see the shock on someone's face the first time they wear spurs.  As a rider, you can feel the touch against the horse.  If you've watched westerns, or Olympics only, they make it looks so easy, and you will be shocked at how often you accidentally jab your horse.  I swear the first time I rode in spurs, under my instructor's eye, I spend the whole lesson saying "I'm sorry Boo, Opps... sorry Boo!".

So again, the problem with spurs, is not the use of them.  Rather it's the improper use, and lack of ability by the human.

The same is OH so true of bits!  There are some bits out there which look like torture devices.  Yes, sadly, many of them are made to be torture devices to give more "stop" to a horse.  But initially, these severe bits were created to require less of a command from the human hand.

When the bit lays in the horses mouth, it should be resting easily, and not touching any of the sensitive areas.  A bit with no pressure on it, should be comfortable to wear.  We look at these high port bits, and it boggles our minds, but we forget that as humans, we have a very small mouth.  Our horses mouths are most of their head.  Something 4 inches long wouldn't even gag them, so in their minds, this port isn't that big of a deal..... unless it is used wrong.

The purpose of a more severe bit is that it gives much more signal with much less force.  As an English rider, I tend to keep a tight rein, and contact with my horse's mouth.  Now that I am learning to ride Western, I have had to figure out how to keep contact with a horse's mouth through gravity on the reins.  The weight of the reins them self is what touches the horse, not my physical pressure.  This means that a western bit requires a lot more "oomph" on the horse's side, if used properly.  See, I shouldn't ever take up allof the slack in the reins when riding Western.  If I did, I would slam the port of the bit right into the roof of the horse's mouth, and that would be BAD.  Most of my horses would put me right into the dirt for it too.

Yanking on a bit can seriously hurt a horse's mouth, but when used properly, a bit can actually reduce the pressure on a horse's mouth.  The size of the mouth piece, the angle of the port, the height of port, the break in the snaffle, the angle of the link, the shape of the side rings... it all makes a difference.  Each of these bits works together to either buffer, or strengthen the signal from the rider's hands to the horse's mouth.

A rider with poor hands can not use more severe bits, because as they bobble on the reins, they are constantly "talking" to the horse through the bridle.  A little bounce in the reins here, and the angle of everything changes, causing the bit to move in the horse's mouth.  When the horse reacts to that, the horse is often seen as being "bad" and doing something wrong, simply because the rider isn't aware that he or she was cueing the horse.

In my time as a rider and trainer, I have used many severe devices.  I personally love draw reins to help a horse learn to move properly.  I have used curbs, snaffles, elevator bits, hackamores, bitless bridles, whips, spurs, and more.Very rarely has my riding caused my horse to suffer though.  I can't say never, because like all riders, I have screwed up, and I tend to do it in big ways.  The difference though, is that I have learned how each of these devices works, what they are meant to be used for, and if I use them, I learn to do it properly. 

As I go through my training with Sweetie, I will be tossing in a few blogs about the different training aids, and I promise to be much more specific on each one.  If you know of something that you find cruel, please point it out, and I will do my best to show you the PROPER use of that aid.  Remember, in this day and age of short cuts, not all training devices have a kind and proper use any more, but so many do. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Riding the Green Horse

This is Sweetie as a yearling.  See, I was bad yesterday and didn't get pictures of my ride, because it's not easy to photo yourself on a horse.  So, you get to deal with recycled pictures today.

Anyway, I decided to get out and ride the big lug.  For me, this process is tackling a few things.  First, I'm getting Sweetie trained up.  Secondly, this is the first "unbroke" horse I will be riding myself since my accident.  I have some fear issues to over come!

So Yesterday's ride was mostly about getting ME up on the horse with out a baby sitter.  Sweetie has done this before, and she's perfectly fine with it, but I wasn't.  I have to admit that I was freaked out at some parts.  Oddly, it wasn't the parts I expected!

I caught her in the pasture, and headed up to the barn.  I tied her up to the trailer (which is my tack room for now) and did the routine groom, pick feet, fly spray thing.  Sweetie took a nap.

I have to mention here that while Sweetie was the last horse bred by Everett Smith, she was born at Iron Ridge.  Her mother arrived VERY pregnant, and a couple of months later, this bundle of joy arrived.  I missed half (literally) of her birth, but Jae was there to assist.  She was born during my "nap time", and Jae came screaming in, shook me, said "Rose is foaling" and ran back out.  I put on the first clothes I could find, and arrived to see legs, head and neck, with Rose being the most calm and mild mannered mare in labor I have seen.

I told Everett, and he chose to name her SHC O Sweet Surprise, or Sweetie for short.  The name fits her.  First, she's a chestnut from 2 black horses.  That was a shocker (as they have black in their lineages for eons).  Secondly, she's a snowcap, or homozygous for LP.  This means that she will always have foals with some type of appaloosa type coloration.  She's the highest percentage homozygous LP horse that we know of. 

So, the plan was, that I would sell this filly for Everett.  Yeah, lets just say that didn't happen.  Instead, I bought her for myself.  Something about her just made me fall in love, and she earned a place as one of "my" horses.  And I justified it because of my breeding program.  Hey, it all worked out, right?

So I have raised this filly from birth, and she's one of "mine" in my mind.  When she was weaned, something dreadful happened, and she turned into one of the ugliest most awkward babies I have ever seen!

Yes, Sweetie was a Moose.  We fed her and fed her, and she just kept getting this big belly, and growing taller!  As a 3 year old, she has finally slowed down, at 15.3 hands, but she's very obviously not done, and she hasn't even started to grow wider yet.  She is still a gangly teenager.

So, last April, when I got kicked, it was Sweetie that I was brushing.  Diva got jealous, and ran up behind us kicking.  I got caught in the cross fire, knocked under them, and dear Sweetie stood over me taking kicks, not knowing what to do.  She knew she wasn't supposed to step on me, but she really didn't like getting kicked on.  If she hadn't been so well mannered, it's likely that my head would have been crushed.  I was brushing her, and hence had no helmet on.  I was laying completely under her, dazed, and unable to move.  I have very clear and vivid memories of the sunlight on her leg hair.

And now, I have a fear of being under the feet of a horse, or anything that could put me there.  It's completely irrational, but it's there.  Yet something inside me trusts this horse (huh, wonder why!) so I chose her to be my "greenie" to test out my new found confidence in the saddle.

I tacked her up, and she had perfect manners.  The worst she did was backing up as I bitted her, but that was my fault.  I had the offside of the bridle hooked on her halter, and putting backwards pressure on her.  Once I unhooked it, Sweetie opened her mouth, and took the bit like a pro.

I put her in a western saddle, cinched her up, and headed out to the arena.  It's been a bit since we've ridden, so I started on the lunge.  Wow was that anti-climatic.  She walked, and would even trot when I asked, but she had no interest in fast, spooky, or zippy.


So then I went to climb on.  I used the same methods I talked about yesterday, making sure she stood nicely, and was relaxed.  I put a foot in the stirrup, and balanced my weight across the saddle, while playing with her bridle (asking her to bend her neck) and patting her offside.  At one point, she got confused, and when I patted her ribs, she took a few steps, thinking I was asking her to walk on.  A light touch and "woah" and she stopped perfectly.

Well, that means no more putting it off for me.  And yet, the thought of swinging onto a green horse, with one real ride on her, had me very nervous.  Sweetie had given every sign that she was going to be perfect for me, but my mind kept thinking about her bucking, or bolting, and me ending up tossed under her feet.

I knew that this would be a HUGE step for me, and I really didn't want to back down, so I compromised.  I asked Jae to lead her.

I swung up and over, and petted her, and Sweetie made happy faces.  Then I asked Jae to just let me sit there a bit.  We talked, I petted the horse, and in seconds, I began to feel secure, and in control.  Sweetie has a nice "sit" to her, being wide enough to fit me, but thin enough to resemble a light horse (Thoroughbred) type of build.  Like I said, she hasn't finished growing yet, and I had worried that I would really feel like I was on an ungangly baby.  Nope, not at all.

I asked Jae to make a big circle, and just let me feel her move.  He never said a bad thing, just walked off leading the big lug.  Sweetie followed perfectly, and her only bobble was stepping in a bit of mud and compensating for the slip.  She didn't have a single problem balancing me, and she could care less that I was in a predator area.  Sweetie was just loving all the attention, and doing her best to be perfect.

So, it was time.  Jae handed me the lead rope, and I looped it over the horn, and asked Sweetie to walk.

She walked.  She turned.  She stopped.  She did everything I asked her to, and did it as well as she knew how.  She was light, responsive, and thinking.  Her gaits flow like silk, and her movement comes from the hind end.  She's forward, in a very calm and controlled way.

All in all, I had nothing to worry about, and I felt GOOD about it.  I asked Jae to hold the lead while I stepped off, and he was smiling at me.

When I swung my foot out of the stirrup, she braced up for the weight shift, but didn't move out of place.  She stood quietly for me to slide down her side, and then demanded her hug when I was done.  I loosened the girth, and started giving her cookies.

So, no, I didn't do a thing to train the horse, but I did do a ton to get over my fear issues.  I felt good.  I felt calm.  And I felt like my old self on a horse.  Oh sure, I'll probably always have to deal with a bit of anxiety, but I know how to handle it now.  I simply diffuse the reason for the fear in very small steps.

Tomorrow, if weather allows, I'm going to do it all on my own.  Sweetie rides like she's been doing this for weeks now, and I have ever intention to take advantage of that.  I'm going to call Rachel and Chris in to help too.  I need someone to ride in the arena with me, and someone to call 911 if I try to kill myself again.  I think Sweetie will do fine with a mature and calm horse around, but I really want to be sure that she can work around other horses.  I made this mistake once with Amber, and it resulted in a very bad spook, and me in the hospital.

It won't be happening real soon, but maybe in a week or so.  Midnight and Sweetie get along, and Midnight will pony, so my plan is to first ride Midnight and  pony Sweetie off her, then have Rachel ride Midnight and Pony Sweetie, and then for me to ride Sweetie next to Midnight as if we're being ponied.

Needless to say, I'm VERY happy about this.  It might seem like so little to most people, but for me, getting on a young unbroke horse, especially one involved in my accident, took a lot of time to work up to.  I did it, and I lived, and it was FUN!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The first step in training

It's actually hard to say what the FIRST thing I do in training is.  That's mainly because it depends upon when I meet the horse.  If I'm present at its birth, then my first thing is to allow the young foal to be curious.  That teaches them that humans are ok.  If not, then it really depends upon what they already know.  It's always easier to teach a horse the first time, then it is for them to unlearn bad things, and start relearning good ones.

But, here I'm talking about training a horse to ride.  Now, I suppose that means that the first thing I teach a horse is to lunge.  You can read all about my thoughts on lunging here.  Since I've already rambled on about it recently, I'll spare you from doing it again.  Suffice it to say that lunging, no matter how you spell it, is required for how I work with horses.  I need them to know the verbal commands, and to understand pressure.  Pressure from the bit, the saddle, the girth, my presence.... with out being able to accept that, then I don't have the first clue of how to work with a horse.  Some do, I don't.

Remember when I said I trained slowly.  Well, this is what I was talking about.  Think of it like trying to teach someone physics.  The first thing you really need, is to have a common language.  Lunging is what gives me that common language with horses.

But many still consider lunging to be "ground work".  Well, it's true, since my feet are on the ground.  So, when it comes time to actually RIDE a horse, my first step in training, is teaching the horse to stand to be mounted.

I have no idea why every one loves to get pictures of me doing this, but I have a dozen of them. 

The important thing for me though, is that the horse will stand calmly.  For those of you who have worked with young horses, you might be thinking "well how long does THAT take?" and the honest answer it that it depends upon the horse.  Rooster here had NO interest in standing to be mounted.  He would step, shy, bolt, and basically do anything to make me hurry it up.  And this horse was broke when he came here.

See, standing to be mounted is important, but it's boring as hell to teach.  My method is simple.  I walk the horse up to a mounting block, step up, and begin to mount very slowly.  If the horse moves more then simply to brace up, then I lunge it.  Eventually the horse learns that it has 2 options.  It can stand, or it can move, but it can't avoid the work.

But it's the nuances here that vary depending upon the horse.  Some horses are scared, and rightfully so!  Their instincts scream at them that only a predator would want to be on their back.  We are predators.  Hence, they wonder if their time has finally come.  I tend to anthropomorphize my training steps so that the owners can better understand it, so here's how I think about this.

Imagine if your best friend or spouse was to suddenly pull a gun and put it to your head.  You can't really see the gun, so you don't know if it's a toy, or real, and this person has always been kind gentle and caring to you, so you can't believe that they would be serious.  Fear would jump in your gut, and your body would tense.  You might widen your eyes, brace your neck, or try to step away.  Sound familiar?  It's what most young horses do the first time you want to step up on them. 

Eventually you might realize that there's a greater purpose there.  No matter what it is (maybe it's a ploy to get you out of danger?  Maybe it's for candid camera?  Who knows!) and you'd consent to the play, and relax with that gun to your head.  Maybe you wouldn't until it was explained to you in very careful detail.  Just like a horse does when thinking about accepting a predator into it's most susceptible area.

So I often find myself going slow at this point.  I use a mounting block because it reduces the distance for me to haul on the horse.  I am not exactly a little girl, and when you add the weight of me, and the weight of a saddle, it adds up.  To a horse that has never used those muscles in that way, hauling my butt from the ground into the saddle can pull muscles.  Pulled muscles hurt, and that reinforces the feeling of fear in the horse.

So, I stand on a mounting block, and pet the horse.  I do my best to make this a pleasant experience.  I ask the horse to "Stand" (not move its feet) and then slowly pet it all over.  Depending upon the horse's level of comfort, I might do nothing more.  If the horse accepts it, then I move on to wiggling the saddle, patting its rump, and touching the horse all over.  Especially on the off side of the horse.  I want the horse to understand that things happen on both sides of it.

From there, I lay on the saddle.  We start with a bit of pressure, and build up.  Just pushing the saddle tree into the horse's back can sometimes cause another set of panic issues.  Most horses don't care, but it's always best to go slow in my opinion.

Depending upon the saddle we us, Western or English, we may stand in a stirrup, or simply lay across the saddle.  The trick is to balance your weight completely over the horse, just as a rider would be balanced.  Balanced enough that you can be carried around with out slipping off.

Now, as you can see, I tend to use a ground person.  This makes the horse feel more confident, as there's something similar to the previous set of lessons (Lunging) and someone for the horse to look to for guidance.  Not every one has this option, but I've found it results in happier horses who progress faster. 

So, from putting pressure, to completely laying on the horse, we begin to move forward.  If at any time the horse begins to panic, bolt, or spook at any of this, we slow down, and go back.  Nothing explains a new task like repetition.  Remember that horses are completely honest, and they can't lie.  If the horse is acting scared, then it's scared!  They don't know that this is "work" or something to dread, they simply know it's weird, and that they would rather be eating.

Taking the first step bearing weight is one of the points where a horse is most likely to spook.  This is why I have taken to laying over them rather then sitting astride for this step.  If the horse spooks, bolts, or bucks, the "rider" can simply step off to safety, and remove the cause of fear.

Of course, if that happens, you have to slow down, take a few steps back, and repeat.

One thing I've learned though, is that nothing seems to help a horse learn as much as time.  If a horse is scared and bolts, simply go back to what the horse was good at, end on a good note, and call it a day.  Give the horse the night to think about it, and on the next day, the horse will likely act as if it has been doing this a while.  Just letting a new idea sink in often is the best trainer.

So, if the horse will gladly walk around with weight, it probably isn't going to be walking around straight.  Young horses - or any horse learning to carry a rider - will wobble and walk like they are drunk.  It's simply the fact that they want to balance the extra weight.  Think about carrying a very large, and very full bucket of water.  If you don't want the water to spill, you tend to wobble while carrying it.  Not unless you do it a lot do you realize that walking in a calm relaxed manner and ignoring the water often means you spill the least.  Horses are the same way.  They want to balance you, not realizing that as they over compensate you simply wobble to the opposite side.  It takes hours for them to accept this, but once they do, they remember it.

Now remember that I use a ground person, and a mounted person.  As you can tell from the pictures, I have spent time working in both roles.  Once the horse is willing to carry a mounted rider a few steps, or a small circle, we start working towards riding.  Like real riding.

My ground person leads the horse around, just as if it was coming in from pasture and didn't have a rider.  My rider takes up the reins, and slowly begins to add pressure and commands from their seat, hands, and legs.  Lightly at first, and always in conjunction with the verbal commands.  So, if I'm the ground person, and Amy is riding, I start out in charge.  I will say "walk" and step off expecting the horse's ground training to be there.  She steps off, carrying the rider who is doing nothing.  When we are about to turn left, I will say "Left" and then slowly begin moving that way, same for right.  Before we stop, I will say "ready" and then "Woah".  We keep this up slowly adding in Amy's rein and seat and leg pressure, and then switching over who is in control. 

Amy begins to give the verbal commands, and I obey them.  The horse watches my body language if she needs a hint on what exactly we want.  Once the horse is listening completely to Amy's commands, and I'm just walking there on a slack lead, and reacting after the horse, then  I remove the lead.  We continue to do all of this with Amy in sole control of the horse, and only my presence there for guidance.  I step further and further away, until I am standing in one spot with Amy and my horse working around the arena with out me.

At this point, I consider the horse backed.  From here, we need to make the horse broke.  Once the horse has accepted working with out a person on a lead, I can begin to train the horse alone.  Granted, I like to take things slowly, so I often start the next session with a ground person, but with the rider giving all commands from the start.  Within a lap or 2 the ground person is dismissed and excused from the arena.  If the horse accepts this with no fear, then I no longer need a ground person.  If at any time the horse is stressed, scared, or confused I go back to a point where the horse is confident.  Naturally there is praise involved with the least little progress.  If the horse reacts in any way that I like, we praise her.  There's no reason not to, but it's so easy to forget that part.

See, praise is something a horse understands.  We've been teaching them for a long time that "good" means just that!  If they are insecure, a pleasant "good girl" will reassure them that their reaction is the one you want, and it helps them to learn faster.  This is what clicker training is all about, it's what Pavlovian training is all about.  With out thinking, you have likely taught your horse your phrase for what you like.  It can be anything, but I bet you repeat it often.  Mine is "good girl!" said in a specific tone.  When you say this, the horse releases hormones associated with other happy experiences, and has a good feeling.  This sets the training in the horses mind as being correlated to happy things.

This is where I am at with training Sweetie (the chestnut roan shown above).  She's my SDHR mare, the last horse bred by Everett Smith, and one of my treasures.  I love this horse to bits, and she's a very VERY good girl.  Soon we will begin working with no ground person, and I hope to figure out exactly what it is that I do to train a horse.

Before, I have always just done what feels right.  Working with Amy, I have had to explain what it is that I do, and that's not as easy as it sounds!  I figure that by writing it down, as I go through the process, I can get it all straight in my own mind.  So don't be surprised if I continue to make long, photo filled posts about what exactly I do, and how slowly I go about training a horse. 

Backing a horse is just the first step.  Even here I've jumbled so many things together, from asking the horse to stand still, to asking it to bear weight and respond to the aids.  Usually this process takes weeks for me, depending upon how quickly the horse can learn.

While it's something I can do, it's not nearly as easy to explain to people.  I work with horses, so tend to feel and react, rather then explain.  The horses respond to my body language more then my words, so detailed instruction is rarely needed.  With Daltrey growing up so fast, and more people coming out on a regular basis, I've decided that I really need to learn to speak to humans too.

It helps me greatly when readers ask questions about steps, and make me stop and put it into words.  It helps me tons when I have to think as I type, and make those feelings into a verbal image.  So bear with me as I vomit my experiences onto the blog sporadically for the next bit.  And here's  hoping that Sweetie doesn't send me to the ER!  This will be the first unbroke horse I'm working with since my accident in April.  So far, I'm feeling good about it, but another accident might be the last straw for me.

Thank goodness Sweetie lives up to her name!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Training Horses as an Art Form

I'm not the best rider in the world.  Not even close.  I work hard to keep my toes from pointing out, yet have never truly succeeded in that.  I go right into a chair seat when things go wrong.  And of course there are the confidence issues.  I have plenty.

And yet, I start horses and fix problems.  Oh sure, it's the easiest type of training to get into.  Lets be honest here.  Big name trainers can pick and choose their clients, and very few of them are willing to get hurt by someone else's horse.  The big market for no-name trainers is in the "this could kill you" category.  Starting horses under saddle, and fixing problems definately is in the "this could kill you" category.

And yet, it's the thing I love most.  Kinda.

My only problem with starting youngsters is their owners.  No offense to any of my clients in the past, but humans are an impatient species.  We want it, and we want it NOW!  Oh hell yeah I've been the same way.  That doesn't make it right.

When I work with a horse, I prefer to work with the horse on my terms, at the horse's time frame.  We humans don't all learn at the same speed, so why would we expect an animal with a brain the size of a golf ball to do so?

Well, I can actually answer that one for ya.  It is called the dollar.  Who wants to pay for an EXTRA month of training on a horse?  I can't think of a single person who is standing around screaming for that particular pleasure.  When we work with our own horses, we never feel the need to rush.  When we have bills to pay, and someone else is doing the dirty work, most of us feel a bit of need to rush!  It's normal, and it's not really a BAD thing.  It's just something we as horse owners need to be honest about.

So, because of that, I find that I LOVE starting my own babies, but hate working with other people's babies.  Oh I have no problems at all with helping an owner start their own horse.  When you lay in the saddle you can easily feel the tension, stress, and fear in a horse.  That doesn't mean that you will feel it when someone else lays in the saddle though.  It isn't always something you can see either.  My problem is two fold you see.  First off, I'm tired of getting hurt.  I don't really need any more concussions for a bit!  Secondly, it's not fair to the horse to push it past what it can handle.  Oh sure, there are plenty of trainers out there who will do that.  Yet I began training my own horses because I didn't LIKE how "those" trainers would handle the horses.

So, if you want fast, please take your horse to someone else.  When I have a horse in for training, I feel that the HORSE is my client, not the owner.  Sure, the owner writes the checks, but the horse is who I am there to answer to.  That is how it should be, and that is how I am able to sleep at night.  I won't tie down a horse, or whip a horse into submission just for a few bucks.  If I have to resort to that, then I will quit, and go get a job at McDonald's!

But with all that said, I still love training horses.  I love the feel of the horse when it understands something.  I can get high on the enthusiasm from the horse.  I am amused by the wobbly steps of a young horse as it learns to carry a rider.  And there are no words for the feel of a perfectly executed move under saddle.  It's pure poetry.

Now Jae, my better half, is a relatively new horseman.  He gets it, and the whole horse thing just makes sense to him, but he doesn't really have the hours to be a top notch horseman yet.  On the ground, he's the person I trust most.  We can work together with out talking, and I know what his next move will be with out even looking, just as he knows mine.  Yet, he couldn't sit a canter if he wanted to.  Working with him, I often find it strange that some people can't train their own horses, or just can't "get" what their horses are thinking. 

I keep thinking that with a little advice, any one can do it, yet Jae tells me that I have a "real gift" for what I do.  It's hard for me to wrap my mind around anyone having a "gift" for empathy.  And empathy is really all there is to training a horse.  At least to starting them under saddle, and fixing their problems.  Higher end, discipline specific stuff - yeah, that takes skill and know how.

And then I stop and watch people.  Not even people with their horses.  Just people being people.  They miss obvious body language, the ignore stress and fear in others, and they forget how to empathize at all.  We've all seen it happen.  And if humans have that much trouble understanding other humans, then how much harder is it to understand a completely different species?

And then, on my day off I started watching horsey movies.  From Buck to Secretariat, with a little Black Beauty thrown in for good measure.  When I finished, I started thinking - and for me, that usually means tangent after tangent goes through my head.  I can either make Jae want to kill me for rambling on about something he doesn't really care about, or I can blog about it.

So here we are, eh? 

I started thinking about why I am not the "best" trainer out there (yeah, yesterday's blog, what can I say) and what it would mean to BE the "best".

I think the only answer to that is the ability to communicate with humans.  There are many amazing horse trainers in this world, who will never be appreciated, because they can't make the horse's owner "get it".  How ironic that the skills most needed in horse training are not the skills most rewarded!  Look at Pat Parelli, John Lyons, Clinton Anderson, and any other trainer with a TV show.  What do they have in common?  They can make people listen.

That doesn't mean they are good trainers though.  I've seen Anderson in a chair seat, bouncing horribly on a horse's back.  I've seen Lyons allow a 2 year old to push him around.  I've seen Parelli's public criticism (some is deserved, others isn't).  Not a one of them is a perfect trainer, but then again, who is?

And then there's the riding.

Lets be honest here, we expect our trainers to be excellent riders.  We want them to make our horses amazing for us under saddle!  The whole purpose of paying 300, 400, 500, 800, a few thousand a month, is so that we can simply step up and ride, with out worrying about much.  For some, that means with out worrying about learning to RIDE.

And really, how many of you have taken riding lessons?  How many of you learned to ride the hard way, by eating some dirt?  How many of you are just winging it?  Now a real dose of reality.... how many of you blame your horse for your own lack of skills?

Don't get me wrong, I see no problems with a poor rider wanting their horse trained to cover for them.  I mean, that's why first time horse owners are told to get an experienced horse, right?  But our culture pushes us to assume that the fault lies outside of ourselves.  It can't be MY bad riding that is the problem, it must be the bit, the saddle, or the horse's lack of training.

In so many cases though, it's simply a problem of communication.  You ask, the horse doesn't get it, but tries to give an answer.  It answers wrong, and problems start.

So, this gets me to the point of my whole post here today.  Learning to ride, and my thoughts on it.

I've taken lessons.  WOW have I taken lessons!  Almost all of them were English.  Jumping, dressage, flat work, I've been there and been yelled at for it.  Want to know what I learned?

I didn't need lessons.

No, it's not something that I do that is magical.  Rather, what I needed to do, was to learn to listen to my horse.  No matter how many people yelled at me to put my legs back, my heels down, or steady my hands, what I needed most was to feel how my actions impacted my horse.  And oddly, it was a baby fresh under saddle who taught me the most.

See, I have minor scoliosis.  I have rheumatoid arthritis.  I have some old injuries that bother me, and I have crooked legs.  My toes naturally point out, like a LOT, because my lower leg attaches crooked at the knee.  My left turns out much more then my right.  In other words, riding "straight" in the saddle is pretty much impossible for me.  Instead, I had to learn to ride "balanced" and it took a 3 year old Arabian to teach me that.

When I sat "straight" my right hip pushed into him, so he drifted left.  I swore I had the world's most crooked horse!  Then a friend asked if it was me.  She pointed out that horses are honest, and if he travels straight on the lunge, or at liberty, then the only reason he'd be crooked under saddle was me.  It was a light bulb moment.

From there, I began to play at how I sat a horse.  I leaned, I stood, I bent, and I pressed.  Everything I did had a reaction from my silly young gelding.  Now, I don't really recommend you try this at home, unless you are as crazy as I was, and under 30!  I ended up teaching Boo to rear, just because I didn't exactly know what I was asking.  I then turned that into a levade, and only on command.  I tried to learn to ask for a specific leg, and it resulted in a type of Spanish Walk/pawwing thing, which I fixed many years later into a bit better of a Spanish Walk.  In other words, I experimented, and I learned SO MUCH from it.

And now, I train horses for other people.  I try so hard to make the horse's learning match the rider's.  If the rider tends to sit a certain way, then I too try to sit like that.  If the rider has a certain mannerism, then I try to mimic it.  Oddly, I find that I learn as much as the horse in this process.

I mean, it isn't something that is easy to put into words.  And yet, I find myself thinking obsessively about the art of riding a horse.  Not the proper skills, but the moment of feel.  The nuances that say "walk to canter" not "walk to trot" or the symbiotic feeling you have when executing a perfect side pass.  Sure, a good instructor could tell you ever muscle to flex in order to ask for that, but so can a good horse.  The only way to feel it, is to FEEL it.

I swear, some days I want to get my students drunk, and put them on a packer, and see what happens.  Granted, my students are all legal to drink, my horses are safe, and I'm not nearly that stupid, but you get the idea.  Take away the inhibitions, and allow people to FEEL what happens between them and their horse.

I watched Leah trying to canter Jaz the other day, and it was amazing.  She couldn't get him to canter when she asked, because she wasn't really sure what she was doing.  The moment she stopped trying, and just felt it, and allowed it to happen, he transitioned nicely under her.  Leah was relaxed and moved almost perfectly with her horse, and her smile was amazing.  It's moments like that which I wish I could learn to share with people.  I wish I could explain to them what that feels like, and how to relax into it.

So I have to ponder, is training horses really about training the HORSE?  What we ask them to do are things that are natural for them to do.  Rather, could it be that in order to be an excellent horse trainer, you have to be a good people trainer?  Is it the balance of both?

I don't really know.  So far, most of my clients are those willing to listen, and to try their hearts out for their horses.  Finding ways to explain it to them is much more of an art then a science.  Going against the standard knowledge of "lessons for you, and training for your horse" and trying to convince people to stop THINKING about how to ride, and to just FEEL it.  That takes talent.  I think it's an art form, and one that I hope to master.  Because really, it's not about what I can do on your horse.

What matters is what you can do on your horse.