Ah, the memories of Golden Ponies…

Trail riding is one of my very favorite things to do – assuming, that is, that I have a good, trustworthy and fun horse to ride. We all know that riding a spooky or dangerous horse is not much fun at all.

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Snuggling with Ellie, the most amazing trail pony.

Fortunately, most every horse I’ve owned has been good on the trail and we try to get out there when we can. It renews the soul and keep us both from going crazy.

There’s nothing like being out in nature and relaxing with your horse. It’s such a bonding thing! You have to trust each other.

The horse trusts its rider to provide leadership. He asks, “should I pass that scary looking fallen log? Will that dog (horse sees it as possible WOLF) attack me? Do I need to worry about that rustling in the bushes?” The rider has to radiate relaxed unconcern. It’s all cool, we can do this, horsie. You are big and brave. I will take care of you.

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Sometimes I sing to my horse which seems to comfort her,  and singing distracts me, too. CAUTION: You need to pick a soothing song, nothing with screechy notes. You’ll feel pretty quickly whether your horse likes the song…or not.

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Eliana, the very best haflinger ever, ponies a young haflinger friend at Wunderlich County Park.

On a trail ride, I have to trust the horse. She will not bolt. She will not take me over the cliff. She will not jump off the bridge plunging me to certain death. She will not suddenly whirl causing me to fall off and be impaled on that stake over there…

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Yes, you see how my mind sometimes works, this is why it’s a good idea for me to sing. Or talk, if I have a friend with me. And so, we all relax and enjoy the ride and I stop thinking, “what if…”

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Not my horse, but a horse is the best way to see the country around Jackson Hole, WY.

Trail riding builds our relationship because we have an adventure together and trust each other more deeply. We come back from the trail feeling even better friends, refreshed, relaxed, and happy.

Below is a 30 second trail video from several years ago. At the time, I was lucky enough to own TWO gorgeous haflinger trail horses. My husband was riding behind on Ellie, taking a trail movie with his iPhone when he should have been minding the horse. I’m in the front on Amadeo.  At the time I was annoyed at him for fooling with his iPhone, but I’m glad now to have the memory of a ride on such gorgeous golden ponies. Look at that Haflinger tail in the video! We are in Carmel Valley, California, for this ride, at Jack’s Peak County Park.

Your horse is talking: are you listening?

Your horse communicates with you all the time, and I don’t mean that he actually talks, like Mr. Ed the talking horse…

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Or Telepathically, as some think. I take issue with long distance animal communicators who “discern your horse’s thoughts from hundreds of miles away” – so long as you give them a credit card. Really good animal communicators may exist, but I suspect they need to be close to the animal. However, I digress.

Your horse wants to communicate to you. Yes, YOU, her person! Every day she is communicating to you.

How? Body language. Ears, of course, expression, tail swish, and so many more little hints IMG_1943that as we pay attention we begin to just know what our horse is thinking (at least some of the time). Some examples:

  1. I bought a Mio Fly Sheet. Nice and soft. My horse seems to like it fine. However, it rips easily, so I bought another fly sheet, more expensive, but sturdier. Horse wore it for a few days but started turning away when I brought it out. I had to ask her to hold still to put it on and the look of disgust was clear: Yuck, I HATE that blanket. Eyes squinty, head up, holding still, but not happy. Why are you making me wear it? I washed the Mio fly sheet and brought it back and her look of relief was so obvious. Now she happily stands still to be dressed, almost like she enjoys it. Communication: let me tell you which blanket I like (silly human).
  2. Saddles. My former horse was more and more difficult at the mounting block. Fidgeting, he didn’t want to line up with it, and would swing his butt away. Hmmm…saddle problem? I changed saddles and voila! Within a day or so, no problem at the mounting block. Do you think he was telling me something?
  3. My mare knows where I keep the sugar cubes. They are only rarely administered, but Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 7.49.54 PMwhen she sees me go to get one, oh, the look of intensity: yes, yes, please, please, please bring it to me NOW, you must bring it NOW. Her eyes bore into me as she mind melds with me: BRING ME THE SUGAR, HUMAN SLAVE. 
  4. This article has some interesting scientific studies on horse to human communication: http://www.thehorse.com/articles/37681/study-confirms-horses-talk-to-human-handlers.

When we are busy we miss the clues are horses are giving us about important things. What are some of the things your horse might be telling you?

I need more time to learn this. Slow down a little.

Something in my body hurts. I need some time to heal or I need my routine changed up a bit. Please be sensitive to my body and how it feels.

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I don’t like this. It feels scary/hard/confusing. Help me with it.

Do you know what you’re doing? I need you to be in charge. If you’re not going to be in charge, I will have to take charge and that makes me nervous.

Let’s go on the trail today! Let’s jump today! Let’s gallop now!

Round bellied Ellie

Could we snuggle for awhile?

How about some sugar now? Or carrots? I’m so beautiful and you love to give me something, don’t you?

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This pony is very motivated by cookies. Heck, aren’t they all?

 

Oh joy! Out on the trail.

Hooray! My barely six years old Andalusian mare – dressage diva and beautiful princess – turns out to be a Trail Horse Extraordinaire!

While I enjoy dressage and my intent is to go as far as I can with it, sometimes I just have to get out of the ring. All that round and round in circles and being perfect makes me LOCO.

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Just arrived at the Woodside HorsePark. Note: no sweat marks (yet). If her front feet look a bit funny (lumpy), it’s because she has bell boots on.

Today, Starlight and I went with our friends, Karen and Xaleo (a lovely Lusitano gelding), to the Woodside HorsePark. We traversed hills (good for those haunches), and wandered through the little trails on the back side of the Park.

Star was so good that I forgot she’s never been on these trails. I was relaxed and chatting with my friend just enjoying the day. Then I realized, wait: I’ve never taken her on a real trail ride before! Hang on, this horse is a FANTASTIC trail horse!

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I’m fumbling with my iPhone taking pictures when I realized Star has never been out on the trails with me before, so maybe I should put the phone away and pay attention…The white horse is Star’s buddy, Xaleo (Lusitano).

I know her former trainer took her out on the trail, but still, I didn’t know she’d be THIS good. Wow, so grateful!

Oh joy! The happiness of being out with a good horse, one who is sure footed, alert to its surroundings, sensible and not spooky. Smooth and comfortable to ride, with a good ground covering walk. This is a GOOD trail horse. Maybe we’ll just give up dressage (ha, not likely. But it’s nice to know that we have options).

On the other hand, I must confess that she would probably not make a good eventer. She spooked a bit at some of the cross country jumps. Fortunately, I do not want to jump them anyway. Yikes, WAY too solid.

Happy Trails, everyone!

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Star went ahead of Xaleo after this and led the way for much of the ride. She prefers to be lead mare and he loves to just follow her like a nice herd mate.

Growing pains

It was a cold and breezy day, and young Starlight was full of Vigor and Vim! She was at her first dressage clinic at a brand new place, and WOW WAS IT EXCITING!!!

Her mind could not take it all in fast enough, and she trotted around tensely, resisting the bend and chomping on the bit. Soon, the instructor suggested we try a canter. With some trepidation, because I could feel how high she was, I gave the aid.

WOOHOO! I was riding a dolphin, not a horse, as she took three giant leaps up and down. She just could NOT contain her exuberance. Here’s our unplanned levade/canter depart:

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You can’t hear my squeak of dismay, but you can imagine it…Fortunately, my kite soon came down to earth and stayed there.

From flying, Star decided that instead of cantering she would be a Pogo Stick.

Bounce, Bounce, Bounce, around the circle we went, with me laughing nervously.

It was kind of funny, but not terribly useful in a dressage lesson. Ah well, we got through it, and after a few minutes she settled. The instructor, Major Miguel Tavora, took us through a series of exercises designed to relax and supple the horse. Things such as trot/a few steps of walk/trot on; shoulder in on the circle; small circles at the walk focusing on getting a soft bend from the horse, and more made a big difference in how Starlight carried herself.

And look what we ended up with: a beautiful dance with a supple and obedient horse. 

Yay for my lovely horse, and Yay for Major Miguel Tavora, who patiently talked us through the steps to get from worried and distracted to more focused and supple. We look forward to the next two days and hope we don’t have to go through the Kite/Pogo stick part tomorrow…

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Where is your energy ball?

“Keep the energy ball in the middle of the horse!” the clinician reminded me. 

My horse tends to be more laid back (very safe and non-spooky) and while he is a willing worker, the idea of having a Big Ball of Energy in the Middle of the Horse was a useful one. Rather than trailing hind legs that I continually nag to “keep up, keep up!” I’ve started thinking about having a crackling lightning ball of energy.

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Or, as another teacher once put it,

Think of riding a great, big, bouncing Beach Ball. Fun!

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Calm horses feel like the energy is behind you, so the rider needs to activate the horse and bring the energy ball forward under the seat. Be careful not to rush the horse forward into too fast a tempo in your desire for energy. A horse that runs along in a quick trot cannot balance himself. Half halts and frequent changes of gait, plus lateral work, will help activate the hindquarters. An occasional brisk hand gallop forward sometimes helps, too!

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Here we see Finn’s energy is not yet under my seat.  You can see that I am driving with my seat and legs, but he’s not reaching and moving forward into the contact or bending his hocks.

 

Some of you have the opposite problem: energy that gets out in front of you, a feeling like you’re being pulled along, perhaps, or racing along too fast.

High energy horses tend to have the energy ball get in front of the rider. In that case, using half halts and the seat brings the energy back into the middle of the horse. Be careful not to pull on the horse, as this will just lead to a tug of war. Horses generally win any pulling contest (they outweigh us, in case you hadn’t noticed). Frequent circles, changes of gait, and some use of lateral movements can help a quick horse slow down and focus.

Always we want a sense of energy in the middle of the horse, under our seats, so that we feel the hind legs pushing energy through the back, being softly received into the hand and circled back through to the hind leg again.

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Finn warming up at the same show. He is more engaged, although things are still a “work in progress.”

 

Ideally, there is a sense that you can go forward or slow down at the slightest touch. It is a very elastic feeling when it works! It begins with getting the energy ball in the right place: in the middle of the horse.

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Different show (hot day, coats were waived). But you can see Finn’s energy ball is balanced under my seat as he begins this working canter pirouette.

Experimenting, making mistakes, and learning

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.05.06 PMSome days it feels like I am banging my head against an immovable brick wall of lack of progress in my riding. But continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is foolish, fruitless, or just plain nuts. Something’s gotta give.

I ask, “How can I change the equation here? What’s not working? What needs to be different? What experiment or exercise can I try?”

Sometimes just hitting pause for a moment and letting my horse walk around on a loose rein while I ponder the mysteries of training gives me enough mental space to figure out the problem and solve it.  How about if I try it this way? (Nope). This way? (Ugg). How about this? Yes! Often I can solve things myself based on experience, past lessons and study (reading/watching videos), but when I need more help, I ask for it.

Giving myself (and my horse) the freedom to experiment and sometimes look awkward, silly, or unbalanced is essential to learning. If we do not try and sometimes fail, if we worry too much about always getting it right, we are still automatons who growth and joy are stifled.

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Awkwardly attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Of course we all need trainers and eyes on the ground as well as our own commonsense and experimentation. None of us is sufficient unto herself. Even professionals need lessons occasionally, and those of us who are amateurs generally need them more often. A lot more often. Whether we profit from what we learn when facing trials and tribulations in our riding – and they will come, I promise you – depends on our mindset. I ran across a fascinating article on learning mindsets which very much applies to riders:

 In her influential research, (Carol) Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.  http://www.wired.com/2011/10/why-do-some-people-learn-faster-2/

I’ve been in both camps: despising myself as the worst rider of all time, hopeless, just give it up and find some other way to spend my money (and imagine how much money I’d have if I gave it up!), or thinking, o.k., I’ll work harder and smarter and we’ll get there!

Many riders divide themselves into the talented or the not-talented category, which is a FALSE DICHOTOMY. They think you’re either born with it, or you’re not. Not so: riding is not inborn, it is taught.

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Edward Gal and Totilas. Not many riders have his physique (look at those long, draped legs). And not many horses are Totilas, either. Well, we can’t all be at the top of the bell shaped curve.

 

Now it is true that some people have more advantages for riding than others: long legs, shorter torso, slim elegant body, blah, blah, blah. And of course learning to ride as a child is an advantage. But everyone improves by applying themselves body, mind and soul to this impossibly engrossing task – rather, passion! – of moving in harmony with your horse. And no one gets there without hard work. Even the greats of the horse world worked very hard to get there and to keep themselves there.

As long as we are happy together...that's really the point, isn't it?

As long as we are happy together…that’s really the point, isn’t it? Oh well, yes, I’d like to make progress, too…and we are! Because Finn and I work hard at it.

In the end, what we all want is harmony with our horses, whether you trail ride, jump, ride dressage, or western.  Here’s a beautiful example from one of the great masters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1YO3j-Zh3g

Ideally, Inspiration and motivation are what we feel

Picture this: a stunning horse and rider pair moving in harmony. Clearly, the horse cost more than a year’s salary, moves like a dream, and is trained impeccably. This horse makes you sit up and pay attention, yes, drool a bit, and think a bit wistfully,

“what would it be like to ride a horse like THAT?”

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And off we go into fantasies of ourselves floating around the ring on this gorgeous horse, doing everything effortlessly. Of course, the rider on top has (usually) earned this horse. She’s in shape, she knows what she’s doing, and although she makes it look easy, guess what? It’s not. Sitting that big, expressive trot with ease and flair? Ha! Most of us would bounce right off. Going from extended canter to collected canter with invisible aids and then into a canter pirouette, all while remaining in beautiful balance, no tugging, no grimacing or grunting, no leaning forward/backwards/sidewards? Brava, rider! I’m impressed. I know how hard this stuff is, because I’m just beginning to learn it.

It’s tempting to think, “if I only had THAT horse, I could ride that elegantly, effortlessly, effectively!”

While it certainly is very true that some horses are much easier to ride than others (no kidding!), all horses require an educated rider to bring out their best.  In our second year together, I have finally caught up to Far Above Par (“Finn) and we showed Fourth Level earlier this season. In a few weeks, we’re going to take a step of faith and go for Prix St. Georges, something new for both of us! Plus a new and updated Freestyle. Yes, yes, two new things at a show (stress meter edging toward red now). I’m crazy, but as my husband tells me, I’m never happy unless I’m pushing myself.

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Far Above Par and Edie in Medium Canter

Meanwhile, I appreciate deeply the opportunity I have to learn from my patient, humorous, educated schoolmaster pony. We’re growing together and having fun! 

If it’s not fun, why are we doing this? If you’re not having fun: change the equation.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Finn makes me laugh. When I see that BIG FANCY HORSE floating across the diagonal in six strides (and it takes us 14 strides), and all of us gasp in amazement, I’ll just think to myself: I have the perfect pony for ME. And then I’ll go out and see if we can get just a little more elegance and reach into our trot extension, a little more jump in our canter, and a whole lot more sit in our canter pirouette. Working on it, working on it…

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show