A few weeks ago, we hosted a ground desensitization clinic at our farm. I didn’t feel like it was something Robbye would particularly benefit from, so I decided to photograph instead. I hadn’t had my big camera out in probably a year, so I was definitely rusty. But boy, did it feel good to be behind the big thing again – and for three hours!
The barn where Robbye is boarded is a small, private farm about ten miles outside of the city. I am so lucky to have an incredible facility: indoor and outdoor with great footing , impeccable care, no drama, and a clean and safe environment. But we only have 11 horses total, and my club of three compromises a full half of the boarders.
What I’m trying to get at is that we don’t get the kind of bustle that a big barn does. We had, until last week, only one trainer, who usually comes once a week. We don’t all haul to shows together. Usually there are only one or two of us riding at a time, or even in the barn at a time. And we have never hosted any events.
That made last weekend even more special: my club-mate, Kathy, and our barn owner, Carolyn, organized a clinic at our farm!
We ended up having 11 horses and half dozen or so auditors for a three hour clinic on desensitization. The clinician was a local trainer named Helge (pronounced like “Helga”), who is a trainer popular with the trail riders because of his natural horsemanship-inspired trail rides. He emphasizes confidence above all else while riding, which many re-riders obviously appreciate.
Other than the bad rap it gets on CotH, this clinic was actually my first experience with natural horsemanship. I have to say: I was very pleased with Helge. Generally his techniques lined up with what I have learned from dog training (I have much more experience training dogs than I do horses), which I found particularly interesting. The parallels between training predator and prey aren’t usually that obvious, in my experience.
At one point, he was teaching the clinic how to back their horses. The ask happens in four steps, Helge says:
- Hold the lead rope slack in one hand the the training stick in the other. Face the horse’s chest and ask for the back by waving the stick between your hip and chest.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the slack portion of the lead rope with the training stick.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the metal snap of the lead rope with the training stick.
- If the horse doesn’t respond, move to tapping the horse in the nose with the training stick.
If at any point in the process the horse backs, there is an immediate release. And, Helge emphasized, the transitions between the steps have to be abrupt and obvious – he believes that faking out the horse, or failing to commit to an ask, is not fair to the horse.
He also understands that of course no one wants to hit their horse – or even tap him on the nose. His rebuttal is that he’d rather hit the horse once and teach the lesson, never having to do it again, than ask half-assed every single time. One, assertive, dominant ask.
Helge used many different “toys” to demonstrate desensitization: a giant ball, a bull whip, balloons and flags, a firing gun, a pipe with empty rattling cans, and more. The approach to familiarization was the same for each toy, however. First of all, the handler must always be calm and confident. Second, if at all possible have the horse follow the scary toy. This makes the toy less intimidating, since it’s not chasing the horse, and also encourages the horse’s curiosity. Finally, a release is always granted immediately after the horse moves toward or accepts the scary situation.
I think my main takeaway lesson from this clinic is that horses are a lot less flighty than we expect; in a comfortable environment with a calm, confident handler, even something that we, as humans, expect to be scary to a horse is really…not a big deal. There were zero equine freak outs at this clinic. Several miniscule spooks, a couple of hairy eyeballs, but no drama. Even at the gunshots.
The clinic was an excellent example of a horse taking his behavioral cues from his handler. If these handlers could replicate their demeanors in a saddle and in a strange place, they’d have virtually bomb proof horses. This is a lesson I’ve been trying to learn for three years now, especially since I’m an anxious person with a mare who is particularly sensitive to me. This clinic was incredible proof that the lesson is valid.
(And it was a great party, too – I can’t wait to have another one at “home”!)
It’s been an interesting week since I last journaled. Thursday I got a call from the farm that Robbye was acting very strange – listless, not eating all her hay, not drinking at all. Of course I freak out and rush out there, to see that she’s just a bit…off. Doesn’t seem to be anything life-threatening, and I hand-walk and then longe her a bit and she seems to feel better. I ended up going out to the barn three times that day, and she felt better every time I visited.
Friday was really fun. Four of us were riding at once – which is strange for our barn. It was like a party! After (barn owner) Carolyn finished riding, she returned to the indoor and gave Robbye and me a mini-lesson. She had some great new ideas, as does (neighbor rider) Heather. They left me with a lot to think about regarding Robbye’s current place in her training.
Saturday, Kathy, Julie, and I trailered to Possum Creek for a trail ride. I rode in draw reins for the submission/obedience factor. On one hand, it feels icky to use them on the trail – there’s a safety factor for sure. After some Google searches, it looks like some people do advocate using them on the trail (for control, brakes, submission, etc.) and others are horrified because they could get caught on branches and then provide a whole lot of leverage to a panicking horse’s mouth. I can definitely see both sides of the argument; of course, draw reins themselves provoke a whole lot of controversy.
Anyway, Robbye was good with the draw reins. They definitely gave me the confidence I needed to make her listen to me. It was also fun to be able to work on some dressage on the trail – ask her to give her head, back it up with the draw reins when she inevitably ignores me, release the draw reins and ask her to walk like she isn’t a llama. It was nice! And I felt nice, too. Not scared.
Sheesh. Only four months ago I was trotting bareback down the trails. That damn crash at the Standardbred show screwed me up so much. SO FRUSTRATING.
Sunday she got the day off, then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday Robbye and I worked on our roundness some more. Again, Carolyn and Heather piped in with some ideas on how to help encourage her and train her. Julie had some new ideas, too – including trying Yogi’s bit. (It’s a baucher. I’m not noticing any difference.) I have a whole lot to think about. Julie commented that it’s taking a village to train me and Robbye, and she’s right! Boy do I like it, though.
Yesterday was particularly successful. I put her surcingle on, and Heather suggested I move the side reins to the buckles on the girth, which are about six inches below the lowest ring I usually use. This made a dramatic difference in her roundness. She was suddenly keeping the side reins very slack, only hitting them when she llamaed. Her back raised six inches as it rounded, I swear.
Carolyn then suggested I get really strict with her behavior on the longe. This is something I thought I had been doing, but I stepped it up a notch and really demanded instant transitions. After a couple small fights – wow was she listening and obeying! This is the kind of obedience that we really need under saddle.
After a great longe workout, I jumped on bareback and tried to replicate her roundness. I tried to focus more on her stretching down instead of rounding up, per Heather’s suggestion. She thinks we may find success turning a stretch into a properly round horse, rather than…whatever we’re doing now. Robbye does seem to like stretching down at the walk and trot, and she offered some nice stretching last night, so I’m definitely going to try this approach!
Wow, I just wrote a really boring novel about getting my baby horse round. RIVETING. Better quit now before I type another 12 paragraphs.
I’m really loving having a “presence” now in the horse blogging community. I’ve been lurking for…sheesh…two years now. I’m really loving commenting – I should have started sooner, but it just seemed so silly to do it when my blog was private!
Had a greaaaaat lesson Friday. I knew I should have journaled earlier, because now what I learned in my lesson is blending with what I learned at the clinic. Anyway, here are my notes:
- I need to work on yielding along the wall. No new notes or strategies – I just need to practice.
- Lots of transitions – especially hard ones, like trot>halt>trot – will help Rob get rounded and on the bit.
- My upper body needs to be stiffer, with more “starch”.
- I need to really crank down the side reins so that Rob is at the vertical, and longe her that way…and then ride her that way, too.
- GAH I’ve forgotten everything. Hopefully more will come back to me as I ride.
Saturday I wanted to get on a make a quick and easy reinforcement of the contact and roundness that we achieved on Friday, but Rob was being a total butthead – nose out, poll up, back hollow. It was a horrible ride and I don’t even want to write about it!
Sunday Kathy, Julie and I took our horses over to Yellow Springs for an informal clinic with a Centered Riding/jumping trainer. I didn’t really learn a whole lot, but the things I did learn were nice little breakthroughs:
- I need to relax my chin, neck and jaw. This will let Rob relax her chin, neck and jaw….and let her drop her head! Just what we were working on on Friday.
- My stirrups were way too long for jumping. Other than that, though, Adriene really seemed to like my seat. Success!!
- THE BIG THING – When I go into 2-point, I need to think less about moving forward over Rob’s neck and more about…pushing my butt up and back. I know this isn’t the correct way to achieve 2-point, but it’s the visualization that works for me. This helps me fold instead of throwing myself forward.
My last three rides have been amazing!
Friday I had a super lesson. Apparently Michele has decided that my position is good enough to really buckle down and work on Robbye. We did some exercises to encourage her to start stepping under her and rounding her back. Here are my notes:
- My arms are now side reins. My hands are motionless, my elbows stay at my sides, and all give and take comes from my shoulder and elbow angles.
- Lots of good transitions will encourage roundness – both walk/trot and halt/trot. This is something I can really work on!
- A ToF at the walk will encourage Rob to step underneath herself and really reach with her back legs. This is hard work for both of us, but we can do it.
- Our big exercise of the day was a leg yield on a 10m circle. Circle inwards, yield outwards. We really didn’t seem to make much progress on this during the lesson; I feel like it’s going to be a lightbulb moment for us.
My favorite part of the lesson was that it really turned into a workout for me. At one point Michele told me to sitting trot and then…never told me to post again! Until this lesson I didn’t really understand why dressage took so much core strength, but I’m definitely starting to see it now. A couple notes about my position:
- I need to keep my body a little more rigid in the sitting trot. This is something I can easily work on, especially bareback. I need to find the happy medium between arched/tensed and floppy.
- ARMS ARE SIDE REINS!
- Still need to make legs back part of my muscle memory during the canter.
So that was an awesome lesson. I still get on a bit of a high just thinking about it.
Saturday I had a great bareback ride out in the outdoor…with no bridle! I did use a halter and leadrope reins…and Robbye didn’t seem to notice that she didn’t have a bit. We did some big cantering, and her brakes and steering were very much intact. Wow.
Sunday Julie, Kathy, Kathy’s mom and I took Robbye and Yogi on a rode ride/drive down to a nearby town, and then picnicked in a cute old cemetery. Rob was great, if a little poky. I let her graze untied while we ate, and it was really nice to not have to worry about her. I’m so glad I didn’t get an OTTB!!!