Monday, July 28, 2008

Day Four - A new horse

There is a great post on GNL about knowing when your horse is paying attention to YOU. I decided to try it today with Canyon to see how he reacted.

The last time I was out, I didn't have any time to really work with him. He was a bit miffed and because I had the kids there I couldn't go through some of the hard core training moves. It was 98 degrees and all of us just wanted to ride and leave.

Today was different. I had all the time I needed to focus on training. And it was remarkable. I made sure he had his eyes on me at all times. I turned him, got him to set his head perfectly, worked on his leads, and was rewarded with the calm, compliant horse.

In other words, a different horse entirely.

Thanks to Rudy, who has helped me get past a few challenges including demonstrating the appropriate level of "energy", the John Lyons/Keith Hosman course, and the great things I've read here and there, I really feel like I may be on my way to making this relationship work.

My next post I'll be talking about shoeing and a hive update. I did get him in some horsey Nike Air's (or the horse equivalent) and I do think that has helped a bit in his general attitude. But more on that later...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Out of the saddle again

No, I haven't been bucked off, other than by my schedule. It's been days since I've gotten to the stables and I miss it.

That's the one thing I don't like about horse ownership, at least for us. Our horse is at a stables that takes a while to get to and since my life is often too crazy to keep up with, I just don't get over there. So I miss seeing Canyon, sometimes for an entire week.

Which doesn't help the training thing at all. I know by the time I get back out there I'll be starting over or stepping back a few steps. But sometimes I notice it seems like some of our earlier work will have set in place.

Then other times the amnesia is impressive.

In the meantime I've been staying up late reading horse mags and thinking about the next ride. Hopefully it'll be soon.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Progress - another day without a buck

It's amazing what a little tough attitude and spins has done to Canyon. He's so much better, I wonder if he's even the same horse.

Today we went on a trail ride at the trails around Canyon Lake, even swimming in the lake at the end. And despite the fact there were four separate deer episodes (where deer suddenly bound by, looking remarkably like lions about to pounce on the poor defenseless horses - at least that's what they looked like to a pair of horses) and one sudden dove airlift, Canyon did not buck.

He didn't even try to buck. Sure, he spooked. But even Lily, the calm sorrel quarter horse, spooked on those. When he spooked, he jerked in place, one time he spun, just like Lily did. But in the end he didn't try to run, didn't buck, didn't freak out.

It was like I was on a different horse.

I had to spin him to keep his attention, had to do the special exercise to get him to lower his head and bend at the poll. I had to keep engaged the entire ride, but it was a much easier ride this time out.

Is he cured? Not likely. I suspect it's pretty much what Rudy said after he worked with Canyon for a day while I was out of town:

I don't think I found out anything about Canyon that you didn't already know. He's a skittish horse that one can't really relax fully on, and he needs a firm hand on him to keep him focused on the job at hand rather than the distractions of the stables or the trail.

But I think that what Canyon needs is what a lot of horses need. I'm thinking that I have done more to train MYSELF than I have any other horses. I have had to learn to be dominant with ALL the horses I ride, be it Spirit, Scout, Canyon, Beautiful, you name it. With ALL of those horses, I like to lead on a halter well, without crowding, have a good round pen session where I assess their personality for that day (because it can change daily), assert my dominance in the round pen to my satisfaction, and ride with authority...

I'm starting to think that having a good relationship with a horse is about the rider most of the time.
Damn. Means it was about me. Diplomatically, but accurately put. I never had to learn to boss around a horse. In all the dozen times I watched the Black Stallion or International Velvet or Flicka, I didn't remember a single scene involving bossing around the horse.

We'd have all been better off if they had a little round penning in those movies. Instead we hop on these horses, ride them around, then find out that they need a lot more than saddles and bridles. They need a tough mare. Or stallion, I guess.

While I don't quite believe that everything that goes wrong with a horse is completely the rider's fault, I do believe it is the riders responsibility. It's my responsibility to know I have a skittish horse that needs confidence building - but I didn't make him skittish. I do have to make sure all my behavior and training doesn't inadvertently make him more skittish - which I think the soft hand approach was definitely doing.

It was a great ride and I'm going to bask in it for a day. Tomorrow, training continues, I'm only in Day Three of the Stop the Bucking Course...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ghandi, Malcom X and trials of Leadership

Well, I finally did it. While I can get Canyon to stop with one rein, I never had his shoulder stopped and while his hindquarters moved. Until Sunday.

Rudy, a fellow horse geek, was there and we were all getting ready for a trail ride. I was round penning, then got in the saddle to try what I had thought I had been doing but realized last week I wasn't - disengaging the hind quarters. It still wasn't happening. I was pulling back on the right rein, pulling out with the left and we were still going in circles. Rudy rode over and demonstrated for me and I saw the difference immediately.

I was way too soft. This would end up as a theme for the day. But more on that in a moment.

So I pulled back hard, and I felt him stop, then float over behind me. I repeated it, in case it was a fluke. He floated back again. It was such a different feeling, this stronger pull on the reins, far harder than I ever tried before. I never pulled on his mouth that hard. But there was no question that it worked.

Then Rudy said "You sure are easy on that horse."

He's right. I have a lot of "leadership" issues with this horse. I actually think the term leadership has been somewhat misleading for me. I write a great deal in my professional life about leadership. I write on political issues and write to and with leaders all the time. I've seen leaders use widely different approaches to get the respect and devotion of their followers.

Everyone uses the term leadership in natural horsemanship. "Be your horse's leader." "He needs to respect your leadership." "You have to gain his respect so he'll see you as his leader." But my idea of leadership is not jiving with natural horsemanship's idea.

I wonder if it's that women lead differently than men, or if I have a different approach in life in general. I discipline my children through relentless conversation. I lead groups through humor and genuine interest. But I realized something as I watch Rudy work with Canyon. He had him responding intensely, jumping at every command, where with me Canyon dragged his hooves like a teenager being forced to go to a waltzing class.

I needed to be more of a dictator in that round pen and less of a nurturer. I needed more Malcom X and less Ghandi.

For some reason the idea is hard for me to embrace. I got caught up in all this language from trainers:
Natural Horsemanship (NH), sometimes referred to as "Horse Whispering," really has nothing to do with literal whispering, though it's probably still a good representation of what NH is all about, because "whispering" connotes a "softness" approach, and that indeed is what NH is all about.

The Parelli method allows horse lovers at all levels and disciplines to achieve: success without force, partnership without dominance, teamwork without fear, willingness without intimidation, and harmony without coercion.

With language like that it's not surprising I've been on the soft side. But I can see being soft and not dominate is not working where it counts. Maybe these trainers would have all called for more firmness all along and I've missed it. I have no idea.

The irony is that most people consider me to be a pretty tough person. I don't suffer fools, I stand up for what I believe in and have taken on some serious battles.

Still the question is, can I be dominate enough in the round pen to convince my horse that it's time to get his act together?

Friday, July 11, 2008

One rein stopping. Sorta.

Step one in the retraining process is getting control of the hindquarters with a one rein stop.

At first I thought the one rein stop was simple. We started on the ground and it went perfectly (it's also described in this series of articles on shoulder control). But something didn't transfer from the ground to the saddle.

I realized I was doing it wrong. A one rein not about merely stopping, or going in a circle, both of which I'd been doing. What should happen in a one rein stop is your horse's front shoulder should stop and only his back end should move, swinging in an arc.

I have this happening in the ground, but not in the saddle. I was recently in an email exchange with a woman in the Austin area who recently retrained her horse, Cody (who is now for sale because this is what she does. Buys 'em, fixes 'em.).

It was in my email exchange with her that I realized I was doing it wrong. I ws explaining that I felt like while I was trying the one rein stop, but it felt wrong. All I was doing was going in circles. Here's her answer:

I am glad you are doing the one rein stop, I cannot tell you how many times it has “saved” me.

When Cody was walking and I pull his head over to my leg with the one rein he didn’t always stop, sometimes he would walk (spin) in a circle, around and around and around, but (as I got dizzy) I wouldn’t release any pressure until he stopped moving and stood calmly. He after he stood there I would release his head (in which he took it as a cue to go forward) and pull his head over to the other side and do the same thing. Horses are smart and for a while I would only pull his head over to one side, which then when I went to grab the one rein Cody would spin himself in a circle because he was anticipating what I was doing, so that is why I learned it is important to alternate sides. When Cody or any horse is going faster like at a canter I don’t pull there head over as hard or fast because I don’t want them to loose balance and flip over. I gradually pull them into a smaller and smaller circle until they stop. So yes, you need to just keep going until he stops, calmly and then release the pressure (holding his head). They will take a few steps until they learn you won’t release their head until they stop moving. When you turn his hind end should be swinging out and disengaging. If you don’t feel him slowing down, make the circle smaller that will force him to disengage.

Another thing you can do is if the horse is running and you want to slow down pull them until a circle until you get the speed you want like a trot and then let them out of the circle. If they break into a trot again pull them back into a circle. Repetition and consistency is key. He would learn what you want.

With the stop, I first sit back with my legs braced in front of me (I physically sigh, so I sit deeper), say whoa and wait one count and then lightly pull back on the reins. So, it is seat, word, and the reins are the correction. The horse should know when I sit back to stop moving. I let him walk a couple steps and do the same thing. Over and over again. When he gets it let him rest because the rest is his reward.

I tried it but found I was still missing something. Canyon was just circling and I knew I was missing something key because adding circles was still not working. I knew my cue was off somehow. So I was over at a fellow horse geek's house and he showed me a book I hadn't seen before, Ranch Horsemanship. It's a cowboy esque look at riding, no nonsense, "hey I got cattle to move, I don't have time for you to be honery" approach to riding.

There in the paragraph on "problems with the one rein stop" was the sentence that said I needed to hold the other rein as well, keeping his head checked just a little, to keep him from moving forward. Then he should swing his back end around.


So I'll be trying that tomorrow.

Zero Tolerance

So how do you stop a horse from bucking?

The underlying issue is control, from what I've read. You have to have precise control of your horse always. You can't let these bucking broncos get away with anything, so to some degree you are going back to the basics, or the foundation as trainers call it.

One particular article I read on the topic said that horses that buck have been rushed through their training. I suspect it's a case of slippage. You let little things go and pretty soon the horse is experimenting with what they can get away with. Then they are stuck in an adolescent phase.

To quote the bucking course "horses that buck are teenagers, sitting on the couch, watching youtube all day. The last thing they want to do is work with you on their back"

This is what I think is going on with Canyon. Of course I could be totally wrong and will be spending the next four months figuring that out. This would not be the first time I took the long way around.

So the first thing to do is to go to a zero tolerance policy on all behavior. Ground work has to be exactly right, no slop. No eating when I'm leading him to the wash rack. No cookies (except for one at the end, I can't help myself). No cutting slack on slow transitions up or down during lunging. No half hearted backing up. I am all over him, demanding more and more.

And he's responding. It may end up being the most effective thing I do. I swear, this kind of reaction from a male is why so many women turn into ... witches. But I digress.

After the zero tolerance policy is in place it's time for serious work.

Tomorrow. Enough of the horse dominatrix routine.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Working on Whoa

(Great image from the Carter Museum in Fort Worth: Charles M. Russell (1864–1926) Bucking Horse and Cowgirl, ca. 1925
Ink with transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper 1961.187)

Canyon is half Arabian. I don't know if that really has anything to do with the issue we've got going on, some people say it does, others say it's not.

That's one thing I've learned in the horse world. There are as many opinions as there are horses.

The "issue" is bucking.

You can find plenty of information on why a horse bucks, but I haven't found a whole lot of trainers interested in working on this issue. Part of the reason is the why.

Bottom line. Barring a pain issue (poorly fit saddle, back problem, hoof issue) or being young (Canyon is 10 so he's way too old to be still doing this nonsense), a horse bucks because of either fear or disrespect for the rider. Not too many trainers want to tell that to their clients. I think that may be because even if a trainer can work on the problem the question may remain - will this horse respect YOU? Sure, maybe the trainer will be able to get the horse to perform perfectly, but will your horse then say "Oh, here's that chick with the new boots. Yesh. I'm getting rid of her first chance I get."

Apparently it's not particularly personal thing with Canyon. He bucked with his previous owner (information I found out after the fact from other people who knew Leslie, his owner for 7 years. She, of course, neglected to mention this at all and sold him as a "good for a novice" horse. ah well). He has bucked with others on board. So I'm somewhat relieved that it's not all about me. It's a general bratty attitude.

Here's how it goes. All the other horses are running and so are you. You decide to slow down. Canyon hates the idea and BUCK BUCK BUCK BUCK.

Or you are finishing up a ride. Someone starts to trot back to the gate. Canyon wants to do more than trot. You decide trotting is plenty. BUCK BUCK BUCK

A young horse freaks out right next to him and starts bucking. Canyon, a sensitive, low horse on the totem pole, FREAKS out. BUCK BUCK BUCK BUCK BUCK BUCK (it was a long one).

The wind is blowing the fake barrels in a very scary way. (To be fair it was really really windy) Canyon FREAKS out BUCK BUCK BUCK.

So there are two scenarios. Fear and aggravation.

Every single time I've ridden through his bucks. He did toss Erin, our friend at the stables. She's okay, a little sore and now a little gun shy. But he hasn't "gotten away" with it, so to speak. Not only do we ride longer, I also then lunge him for good measure.

What's weird is that he's so good the rest of the time. He's got great ground manners. He neck reins and responds quickly to cues. He's good in the arena (except for that windy day with the scary barrel, but I saw it coming). He's even good on the trail 90% of the time.

But there's a line where he feels he's in charge. And the line is sort of tough to spot. I've contacted a few trainers, but no one is available any time soon. So as of two weeks ago I've started a five day STOP THE BUCKING course from John Lyons trainer Keith Hosman. It was 5 bucks (pun intended) so I figured it would give me something to do until I either found him a new owner or a trainer.

(By the way, it doesn't take five days. It just has five segments.)

I'm not getting any kind of commission on this thing. I don't even know if it works. But so far I've really enjoyed reading it. Now I'm giving it a shot.

Anyway, I'll be posting on how it goes. Hopefully my velcro butt will hold out.

Next: Day one: The one rein stop.