Cross-training

Over the last year, Dunnie has been a great teacher, helping me learn all the new tricks I’ve picked up as a Western rider. I thought it was about time that I returned the favor, and last Friday I decided to put an English saddle on him.

English Dunnie.

I’ve only ridden English twice in the last year, both times on horses that were not Dunnie, and both times I was struck by how much more work it is than Western. There’s so much less saddle to hold you on your horse, and the stirrups are less attached to the saddle, providing much more opportunity for your leg to swing all over the place. So in addition to not knowing how Dunnie would react to the different saddle and style of riding, I really didn’t know how my own body would react to it. I predicted that I’d be pretty sloppy.

Amazingly, that wasn’t the case. First, Dunnie is the best. He reacted so well to the change, even naturally adjusting his stride and movement to my different style of riding (posting at the trot much more, a little more forward center of gravity/arch in the back, etc.). I have to imagine that the significantly reduced weight of the English saddle was like a vacation to him after the serious heft of the Western saddle I ride in, but even so I was so pleased at how quickly he adjusted.

As for me, I was very pleasantly surprised by the strength and stability of my legs. Riding Western, I don’t grip as much with my upper calf as I do in an English saddle — it’s just not possible with the way the stirrups are — but I do use my legs a ton to tell Dunnie where to go and to move him laterally. I’ve also been making a serious point of adding exercise into my rides; I’ve been forcing myself to do a lot of two-point at the trot, posting with no stirrups, and a two-beat posting exercise that means you stand up for two beats, sit for two beats (up-up, down-down),  which is a lot more difficult than it sounds. I was able to see the results of all this work in the English saddle, where even at the canter, my leg was rock solid. It just goes to show that constantly going back to the basics in riding is important, no matter what level you’re riding at. I’m constantly reminding myself of fundamentals to work on in my own riding, now that I’m teaching and correcting the kids on these basics over and over.

I think now that I know he’s all right with it, I’m going to add to that exercise regimen one biweekly English ride to provide cross-training to both myself and Dunnie. Now that we’re making some real breakthroughs in our Western riding, including getting him to carry his head much lower than before and finally finally getting some good turnarounds, I’m motivated to keep pushing him, to see what else he can do. While Western is still our main focus, throwing in a little English now and again will be good for both of us just to keep it interesting — a bored Dunnie is a troublemaker Dunnie — and who knows? We might just try out some English classes in addition to the Western ones at our next show.

Save

Advertisements

Book Review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses

 

This is a concise, yet comprehensive text on the fundamentals of all aspects of training a horse, from imprinting a newborn foal to fixing potential problem behaviors in an older animal.

Clearly articulated and well illustrated, my only difficulty with this book was that it was slightly repetitive; often the “sidebar” boxes interspersed throughout the text were disruptive to the flow of ideas and didn’t usually offer anything different from what was being said in the main body.

However, it also provided explanations of some of the basics that seem to have become glossed over in my horsemanship education. Having spent my whole childhood and teen years taking riding lessons but never owning a horse, and now doing much of my current training with my leased horse on my own (with a weekly lesson to give me some structure), I’ve missed out on being specifically taught skills like longeing and other areas of groundwork. This book does a great job of explaining those concepts and connecting them with related skills used while riding the horse, and has been able to fill in some of the significant gaps in my knowledge.

But perhaps the most valuable part of this book for me was, oddly, an articulation of the concept of dressage. Growing up as an English rider who did hunt seat equitation, in my mind dressage existed in an entirely different (and, if I’m being honest, boring) world from what I was doing. It was just the part of the Olympics that I wanted them to stop covering and move on to the exciting jump stuff.

As I began my foray in to Western riding and reining about a year ago, I did somewhat grasp the similarities of reining and dressage. But I had no idea the new depths of training and understanding that I would begin to develop through learning from Dunnie and my wonderful trainer. I’d always been taught to ride in a style of figuring out how to get whichever school horse I was on to participate in what I was trying to do with at least a basic level of functioning, and then practice that until I could look pretty doing it. But the description in this book of dressage (of all things!) neatly sums up the approach that I’ve finally come to know about and take in working with horses:

“The concept of dressage means different things to different people: it can encompass basic training, harmony between horse and rider, perfection of the gaits, development of a horse’s physical and mental ability, and horse ballet. The term is often misunderstood to mean a type of riding that can be performed only in a certain way and one that is just for English riders.

The term comes from the French word dresser, ‘to train,’ and dressage is the kind of training that goes beyond simply breaking a horse and making him willing to carry a person on his back. Dressage is the art of improving a horse beyond this stage, making him more agile, willing, easier to control, more pleasant to ride, more graceful, and better balanced. It involves a type of consistent horsemanship that is necessary for developing perfect obedience and perfect lightness and agility.

Dressage teaches a horse to understand your aides more fully and to become more responsive. Dressage is therefore beneficial for any horse — it will help him become well rounded in his education and less apt to become spoiled or one-sided. A little dressage makes for a better-trained horse. A broader experience of dressage not only trains a horse but also develops him physically and mentally so he is truly ‘one’ with his rider, able to understand whatever the rider asks of him and physically competent to perform it. “

 

Funny enough, as I’ve come to recognize this approach and see the potential it has for creating an incredible working relationship between horse and rider, I’ve always attributed it to the Western sensibility. To working horses that need to have these skills to get the job done, rather than pampered, gleaming show horses prancing around the ring to no discernible end. Thanks to this book, I now have more of an appreciation for the worth of a discipline that I had previously dismissed (although I’m still not sure I’ll be in a rush to go out and watch it).

Save

Save

Save

Reading

The other thing taking up time that I could spend writing this blog is that I’ve been reading every book on training I can get my hands onto. Not only am trying to become the best rider I can be, but also Dunnie is so damn smart that if I don’t keep him interested with new drills and challenges all the time, he gets really annoyed.

To that end, I’ve decided to start a new “book reviews” category.

The first book I got about a year ago when I started riding Western was Reining by Al Dunning, which is put out by Western Horseman.

Here’s my goodreads review:

I’ve had this listed as “reading” for a long time now, but truthfully I’ve read through the entire thing. I just keep going back to it for ideas on new training exercises, or for help with fixing problems and sharpening up skills.

This is a great resource that spans levels of training from green to finished. As a rider that’s new to reining on a horse that’s finished (but who has had a lot of time away from being asked to work and therefore needs sharpening up), I’ve found this book extremely helpful in understanding the fundamentals of reining and learning how to build on those fundamentals to refine my skills in each area of the discipline.

 

Especially helpful are all the pictures that show what the horse should be doing and what that looks like at each step or the drills and the diagrams of how to perform all of them. My favorite chapters are “Body Control and Suppling” and “Turn-Arounds,” both of which have been extremely helpful in working with Dunnie. It’s a pretty great feeling when you read something, decide to try it, and it has immediate results that tell you it’s working.

Next up for review: Storey’s Guide to Training Horses.

You can also see my “horses” Goodreads shelf here for reviews on all kinds of horse books (not just training-related).

Save

Save

Save

Technology of Taming

Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.

Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of.  It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.

To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.

The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.

In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.

You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site  that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.

The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.

I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).

It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.

TechTameJessicaFilippi