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.

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Book Review: The Man Who Listens to Horses

One of the best books I’ve read on training is The Man Who Listens to Horses.

I found this book by accident because I was looking in the wrong section of the library for another book for someone else. I’m so glad I did. Not only was it an engaging account of an extraordinary life, it was a clear, simple articulation of a method for creating connection and trust with a horse.

At the time, I’d recently taken a course on taming mustangs that was based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) principles. The aim of this method is the humane training of horses (and other animals) based on gaining trust and then teaching using the behaviorist methods of Skinner and Pavlov to pair positive stimuli with the training process. It’s interesting and effective, but I found that when I was studying the process, it seemed…convoluted. Like it was more complicated than it had to be.

When I read about Monty Roberts’s join-up method, I saw what was missing. He speaks to the horses using their own language, not our complex vocabulary of psychological terms. Having spent so much time observing mustangs in the wild and understanding how they interact—for example, how a matriarch mare disciplines the problematic behavior of a young colt—Roberts was able to learn how to make a connection with horses in terms that they understand. There’s a part where he talks about a tutor he had when he was young, who said that you can’t teach someone anything, you can only create an environment where he can learn. That is what strikes me as the difference between the ABA approach I studied and Roberts’s approach. Instead of repetitive, scientifically constructed scenarios aimed at getting the horse to do what you want, Roberts’s method is essentially a conversation. It’s saying to the horse, “Trust me; I’ll take care of you,” when the horse is at his most vulnerable. After he trusts you, he’ll willingly want to learn.

The ideas of this book really stuck with me. Several months after reading it, I was at my first show with Dunnie, having my first experience with cow work. He’s trained as a cow horse and gets very excited about them. I, on the other hand, am somewhat afraid of cows. They’re big and I don’t have any experience with them — so I don’t know how they’ll behave. But as I was watching everyone in my clinic class try to keep that cow along the wall, and then in my own run, I realized that a lot of it comes down to pressure.

When Roberts first has a horse in the round pen during the initial join-up process, he puts “pressure” on the horse by approaching it with squared-off shoulders and direct eye contact, in order to encourage the horse to move away from him. After the horse begins to show signs of no longer wanting to flee (turning an ear inward, turning a head, licking and chewing, and finally dropping the head), he beings to ease off that pressure by turning his shoulders at a 45 degree angle to the horse and releasing eye contact. It’s then that the horse will come over to him and join up. (You can watch the process here. It takes an astonishingly short time and it’s kind of like magic.)

So as I was learning about how to manage the cow, it occurred to me that this same kind of pressure applies. When you approach the cow’s flank with your horse, it applies pressure and the cow moves. But then as we were chasing the cow, the clinician was telling me to apply “cow-side” leg—i.e. stay parallel to the cow, but move Dunnie off my leg laterally in the direction away from the cow. That seems to ease off the pressure and results in the cow slowing down or stopping. The whole thing seems to hinge on creating the right tension of pressure on the cow, aiming it at the right place with the right timing to control it. I have a lot to learn in this area; my one experience after the clinic was our Working Cow class this next day, my goal in which was less to control the cow and more just to make it out alive. But the more cutting I watch, the more interested I become in trying it out again with Dunnie. We might soon have the opportunity to do more cow work with the show team; there’s a team penning event held at a place not too far away on Wednesday nights that I’m dying to go to.

Since working at this barn, I’ve also had my first opportunities to work in a round pen, both with Dunnie and with another horse I was testing out for my trainer. It was amazing to me how much I could learn about a horse by interacting with him on the ground. Using Roberts’s techniques, it’s possible to strike up a conversation even with a horse that is fully trained that can broaden and deepen your understanding and connection.

Starting a horse from scratch has always been my dream. Reading The Man Who Listens to Horses made me long for the opportunity to do that even more.

Look Ma, One Hand!

With my first show coming up in just over two weeks, I’ve been training hard to make sure I have at least a functional level of all the skills that will be required to do well. Despite doing some preparation way in advance, there is one thing that I have sort of left to the last minute, and that’s learning to cope with split reins.

For the last couple of months I’ve either been riding Dunnie with English reins on his Western shank bit, or riding two-handed with split reins. In the show, you’re allowed to ride two-handed if you’re using a snaffle, but if you’re using the kind of bit Dunnie has, the rider has to ride one-handed.

Even though I am a pretty light-handed rider, the reins really loom large in my idea of having control of my horse. I’m content to ride on a loose rein when everybody’s calm and things are going fine, but when shit hits the fan, the reins really feel like a life raft in the sea of chaos that can occur.

Riding with two hands also just intuitively makes more sense to me from a balance perspective; it’s much easier to keep the reins even and your horse’s head straight.

But all of that rationalization won’t get me much when the show comes and I have to do everything one-handed, so today I finally started practicing in earnest. The goal I’m setting for myself is to spend the next two weeks (all the time until the show) with only one hand on the reins. Hopefully by then, it’ll feel like second nature.

The biggest challenge that seems to present itself is how to lengthen and shorten the reins. Today I practiced that, first at the walk, then at the trot, and then at the canter. You’re not allowed to even touch the reins with your second hand, so this entails sort of crab-walking your fingers up and down the reins, balancing them against the different fingers to inch in the direction you want to go. Lucky for me, my left (non-dominant) hand is fairly dexterous and responsive (maybe from all those years of playing softball and catching with that hand?). The idea in all the ranch-inspired riding disciplines is that you hold your reins with your non-dominant hand, leaving your dominant hand free to swing a rope.

reins splits

Another challenge seems to be dealing with the long trailing ends of the split reins. They are supposed to lay over the shoulder on the same side as the hand that’s holding the reins, but they are quite long. Mine keep getting caught up on my saddle or saddle pad, and I need to shake them free so they don’t get stuck. And I will admit that I have moderate-to-severe paranoia that Dunnie will trip on the strips of leather that are dangling pretty much all the way down to his feet.

For his part, he does not seem to share this concern, or really any of my concerns regarding the split reins. He seems to be more comfortable with them, and with my one-handed riding. With two hands on the reins, he tends to raise his head more, especially at faster gaits like an extended trot or a canter; with one hand, he is more apt to naturally drape his head low, the way a reining horse is supposed to. So at least there’s that going for me.

Despite my initial reluctance, I feel really good about today’s ride. Since the footing in the ring was a bit sloppy in the middle, it wasn’t good conditions for further practicing our reining patterns, but I think that was a good thing. Being limited to sticking to the rail forced me to get creative about what to work on and I think it was very productive. After getting to an initial stage of being accustomed to the one-handed riding, I started working on controlling our speed less with my hands (ok, hand) and more with my seat and body.

We started at the slowest possible walk I could get Dunnie to do, sitting back and deep in the saddle, and then I worked up to extending that walk to being as fast as it could be without him breaking into a trot. Then I did the same with the trot, using the swing of my hips and leg pressure to extend it. I alternated extending the trot on the long sides of the ring and slowing it down on the short sides, then switched it up and did one long side fast, and one short side slow with the ends sort of a medium pace. I did all of these speed adjustment using as little hand as possible. Then we did it at the canter.

This sort of thing is going to actually be useful in some of the reining patterns we’ll see, because there are times when they ask for a big, fast circle and then a small, slow circle. So speed adjustment is an important skill. But this exercise also helped remind me and reinforce how much more important my body and position are than my hands in controlling my horse. It helped me become more comfortable with this transition to riding one-handed, forcing me to stop relying on my hands for the idea of having control. One hand or two, it’s my position that will communicate much more to my horse.

Patience

We went through a phase in the last month or so where things weren’t going great. I think what happened is that Dunnie got over the initial excitement of having someone new to play with. When I got there, he was kinda bored and lonely and so he was willing and interested in anything I wanted to do. But after a bit of that, he decided it was time to play on his own terms, which is how I came to realize how truly smart he is. This usually took the form of doing something weird when I gave him a cue, even very simple things like “trot,” he was seemingly misinterpreting for “weird, crappy half-pass.” We had a lot of difficulty with the canter transition initially, too. And then our spins, understandably rudimentary at first as I learned how to ask for them and as he worked through stiffness and rebuilt those muscles, all of a sudden started deteriorating instead of improving.

I misunderstood what was happening. I thought that as I was going through the learning curve, I had just hit the part where things that seemed pretty simple to learn at the outset  had now reached a deeper level of complexity and revealed that they needed more skill on my part. Perhaps that is true, to a degree. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking turned it into an Ego Thing. Especially during lessons, when I feel like I have something to prove to myself and my trainer in order to feel like I’m progressing.

In reality, what I had on my hands was a bored, smart horse who was messing with me. That’s a situation that requires flexibility, not the rigidity of an ego-driven desire to just push myself and my horse harder. I found myself on some days getting very frustrated with him and myself, and that’s what forced me to take a step back.

I’ve learned recently that the biggest factor in creating frustration or anxiety for me is feeling rushed, and I’m almost always doing it to myself. Obviously there are situations in life which are under time constraints that we have no control over. But I rush myself all the time, for no reason. When I’m learning something new, I just want to know it all and master it all RIGHT NOW. So when I found myself huffing and puffing and growling at my horse like a rabid dog, my first step in getting back on track was to slooooow it down.

Everything I was trying to do, I took to a slower gait, or a lower threshold of success. We couldn’t lope a whole circle without him alternately charging with his head up or breaking down to a trot? So we did the circle at a walk, in good form. Then we did it at the trot. I couldn’t get him to do a left spin at all; he was just twisting his neck and then backing up. So I spent a ton of time undoing that. Forgetting the spin, I just pushed him forward every time he tried to take a step back in response to my cue. I literally just worked forever on getting him to walk forward. After that, I trotted him in very small circles, reinforcing that I wanted forward motion from him (ultimately where the speed will come from in the spin) and that I wanted him to cross over his legs. After awhile of tiny trot circles, I tried to use that momentum to pull him directly into a spin. It worked on the right, but I still got nothing on the left. Finally, I ended up trotting him toward the fence; when its presence forced our forward motion to stop, I immediately put on my outside leg to push his butt over toward the fence, executing a half turn. Even then, I rewarded him taking even one step the way I wanted him to.

This week I’ve ridden twice so far, and in both rides, it seems that my work has paid off.  I’m much more relaxed, because I don’t have rushed, unrealistic goals and a sneaking suspicion that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dunnie is more relaxed and seems to be willing to play with me again on my terms because I’ve extended him patience and clear communication instead of frustration. He’s back to doing things just because I’ve asked him to do them. And now I’ve incorporated a sort of graduated method of working with him in our rides. Push, fall back. We try something that’s a bit of a reach and set a low threshold for what constitutes “success” at that. Then we fall back and doing something physically easy or brainless. I make him do five-foot circles at a walk to build up his spin muscles, and then I just let him trot around without schooling him at all. He’s so much happier. And because he’s happier, he’s easier to control. And because he’s easier to control, I can have a much, much lighter touch on my aids. These last two days I have been tamping down how much I need to touch him on the reins or with my heels to get to the lowest possible amount that makes him react. Often, it’s not much. Being lighter on my aids, in turn, makes him happier. And all of that makes me happier, and on top of it, actually makes me feel like I’m finally getting somewhere.

Happy Dunnie.
Happy Dunnie.

Before and After

It’s been almost two months now since I started riding Dunnie.

The day I met him, I went out to the barn knowing almost nothing about him; I knew that he was a reining horse and that he had won 3rd place at the International Buckskin Horse Association’s World Show several years ago, and that he was much loved at the barn. I had no idea what to expect, and, having just about zero knowledge of reining, no idea really how to measure him.

When he came out of his stall, I thought he seemed a little small, a little pudgy, and very shaggy with a thick, hay-colored winter coat.

Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.
Dunnie, on the first day I met him in April 2016.

But I reserved judgement, trying to learn as  much as possible about him. He had been leased for a while by a woman before me who rode him a couple times a week; she’d had to move away because of her job. He’d been pastured outdoors in the winter, which accounted for the unusually heavy coat in a place where it doesn’t get all that cold.

Of course, once I got on him, I immediately fell in love. He was so easygoing, so willing, that I knew right away for sure that I wanted to lease him.

The first time I groomed him myself, I realized just how much coat he was shedding. In five minutes, I’d have several curry-combfuls of his light-colored winter coat drifting around the ground. But underneath, I could see glimmers of the shiny, golden coat that must have inspired his show name, which I learned through some Googling is “Boomtown Gold.” I began to get excited about cleaning him up, and threw myself into grooming him really well every day that I rode him.

struck gold
Dunnie’s golden coat shining in the sun on his withers.

Slowly, more and more of that undercoat emerged. One day while grazing him, I looked over at his back and saw the sun shining off the spot on his withers where all the winter coat had come off. He was still shaggy around his belly and thighs, but here was a glimpse of what he’d look like once he finished shedding. We’d had an especially good ride that day, I felt I was getting stronger and making progress on learning reining techniques. As I reflected on how lucky I felt to be where I was, doing what I was doing—how lucky I was to have stumbled upon Dunnie—I looked at him and felt like I’d struck gold.

I’ve ridden him every chance I’ve gotten for the past two months, weather and work sometimes making that tricky, but I keep finding a way. Most of the time it’s just us out there, with me doing the best I can to be the leader, taking him through the exercises I’ve learned from my trainer and from reading and watching everything on the Internet related to reining in order to build up his muscle and flexibility and get his mind and body back into competition shape. Simultaneously I’m his student, letting him teach me how to communicate with him so we can do the tricks he already knows how to do and that I’m just discovering for the first time. When we’re out there together alone, we work—the riding I’m doing now is the most focused, most directed, most in-depth riding experience I’ve ever had—but it’s also play. I can feel him responding with interest to every new game I pose, every challenge. “What if we try this?” I ask and he says, “I’m game!” Sometimes we do great and I’m amazed at how easy it is. Other times it’s not perfect, but we gave it a good try and so we move on, saving it for another day.

People at the barn have started commenting on the change in Dunnie. My trainer says she can see him getting more fit; others have commented on how much happier he seems, how much friendlier he is in his stall. Someone mentioned that he’d been allowed to get away with quite a bit prior to my arrival, and that he seems to be responding really well to me. It’s so wonderful to hear these things. There’s probably no greater compliment I can receive than “You are making things better,” and when that specifically includes making someone else happier and healthier, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. He’s making me better, too, making me learn patience and chipping away at my stupid perfectionism.

It’s a trope our society presents frequently in stories: the makeover—whether drastic and overnight, or subtle and gradual—the idea that something or someone new comes into your life and fills an empty space and you become visibly different, the changes on the outside reflecting the changes occurring inside. Sometimes, even when it is gradual, it can be startling, as it was the other day when I tacked up Dunnie and brought him into the indoor arena. I put his reins up on his saddle horn and left him standing there a moment while I dragged a stray jump standard out to the edge of the ring, and when I turned back and saw him, I was amazed. The winter coat is completely gone now, and he’s lost weight and toned up. With his fancy saddle and his ears perked up, he looked like the champion showhorse that he was before, and hopefully will soon be again.

Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.
Dunnie, looking handsome at the end of May 2016.

Slow Down

I’ve been in the grip of a sort of spring mania the last week and a half or so. Daylight savings mowed me down, like it always does, but once the days lengthened a bit and the sun started rising earlier, I’ve been back on track with getting up early and making use of the whole day. There are just so many things that I want to do—my editing work, writing my blogs, read the huge stack of books that I have out from the library at any given time, and now I’ve been learning to draw and to carve wood, so I’m constantly drawn towards making new things and improving.

Add to those things that I now have the opportunity to ride four days a week. Only one of those is a lesson, so the other three days I am left to my own devices. My trainer gives me suggestions for exercises to work on with Dunnie when I’m riding on my own, but I’m also possessed with this thirst for learning that leads me to read everything I can find on the Internet about reining and Western riding in general. When I was riding as a kid, there was no Internet, so for the longest time, I haven’t even really thought of it as a resource. I didn’t read about techniques or watch videos when I went back to riding about three years ago; it didn’t really occur to me. In that decade that I wasn’t riding, I realize I could have been reading and learning and connecting to horse-related things online. But I stayed away from that; I’ve never enjoyed learning in the abstract. I don’t want to just read about things, I want to do them; there’s no point if I can’t put the knowledge into practice. My mind is always excited by new ideas, and reining techniques are even more interesting because they feel like they are leading me to be a better rider overall, to have the best communication with horses that I’ve ever had.

The best thing I’ve found online is this series of video diaries from a woman training a 2-year-old stallion from scratch. It’s fascinating to watch all of the foundational work that goes into teaching a horse to understand our communications of what we want out of them. Seeing how she approaches each step of training, the conversation she engages in with the horse, is really eye-opening. There are many times when he, being a young, green horse, doesn’t do what she’s telling him to do. He stops and looks at her and asks questions, like “Can I stop now?”  And she, as she puts it, “doesn’t get offended” by the questions. It makes sense that a horse trying to figure out what you want from him will question what you’re asking of him, and it doesn’t mean he’s “being bad.” When you’re riding a horse that is already trained and he doesn’t do what you want, it’s so easy to get frustrated or annoyed. Watching these videos has reminded me that it is a conversation between me and my horse, and being in a situation where I’m learning new cues for everything in a whole new style of riding makes me take a step back when Dunnie seems not to listen to me and ask myself, “Am I communicating clearly to him?”

The thing about being around horses is that you cannot be manic around them. They pick up on your demeanor and it infects their own moods. Horses, being pack animals, always want to know who is in charge in any situation. It’s not about domination, or “showing them who’s boss” in an aggressive way. If you interact with them in a calm, sensible manner, they’ll gladly go along with most of what you want to do. If you’re crazed, they will be crazed by it, and they will also decide that you’re not fit to be the one who decides what’s going to happen. So going to the barn has been somewhat of a respite from my own energy. It slows me down, makes me be deliberate and think about what I’m doing instead of flitting from one thing to the next.

This morning I went out intending to ride and ended up just spending time with Dunnie. There was some work being done near the ring with power tools, so instead of taking the chance of him getting spooked, we just hung out. I groomed him and grazed him. He’s still shedding his rather shaggy winter coat, and it’s so satisfying to watch curry comb-fulls of hair come loose and drift to the ground. This morning was beautiful weather, cool and dry with the sun shining. I led him to the grass field with little patches of yellow and purple wildflowers growing in it, and he happily grazed while I basked in the sun and watched him and the other horses go about their ways. The turkey vultures wheeled slowly with their giant wingspans above us and I told them, “We’re all very much alive down here, thanks.” It was so peaceful. I haven’t had a chance to do all that in such a long time. Everywhere I’ve ridden since I started riding again has been busy; it’s been, tack up, get on, untack, go home. I’m loving being able to ride so much, but honestly, spending this quiet time with a horse is the best part.

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Equestrian Fitness: Yoga Tune Up® for Recovery

One of the problems with the methods of training I use (running, cycling, and weightlifting) is that they all result in a lot of muscle tightness that builds up over time, making me inflexible, sore, and irritable–all things that make me want to avoid working out.

Since riding itself can contribute to muscle tightness, especially in the hips and lower back, I’ve found a number of ways to combat this unfortunate downside of my training regimen.

Swimming

Getting in the water is a great way to ease sore muscles. Swimming is itself an excellent full-body workout that is especially helpful to sore joints because of its lack of impact. But even going for a dip without doing laps can be quite restorative.

After a hard run or weightlifting session, getting in the pool and relaxing helps my muscles recover more quickly. Doing some flowing movements and stretches in the pool stimulates the muscles with a light resistance created by the water, preventing them from getting stiff as they heal.

Yoga

I’ve written before about the benefits of yoga for a rider’s flexibility, and in my opinion, yoga is the best cross-training for riding and all of my other training methods. It contributes to the length and suppleness of the muscles, a perfect counterbalance to the tightening caused by building strength.

But what if you don’t have access to a pool and can’t find the time for a regular yoga practice?

I found a very inexpensive, effective solution that I can do at home: Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls.

I was actually introduced to these amazing things back at my yoga studio in Brooklyn and recently I’ve been incorporating them more often into my recovery program.

They’re basically two racquetball-sized balls that are used for self-massage, not dissimilar to the rollers found at the gym. The balls target trigger points and can get in deep to alleviate muscle pain in more specific areas than the rollers.

It’s quite an experience. Laying down on your back with them underneath you, you find all sorts of amazing mayhem in your muscles that you weren’t even aware of. The beauty of self-massage is that you can do it as long as it takes to alleviate the pain in each muscle, without being rushed off a masseuse’s table or trying to air-traffic-control your significant other to massage just the right spots.

Spinal erectors.
Spinal erectors

For me, the most productive area seems to be my lower back. The long muscles going parallel to my spine–the spinal erectors–became extremely tight, and are often the source of my hip pain. Hamstring tightness contributes as well, and my poor hips become pulled between these two very large muscle groups.

After using the Therapy Balls, I feel a huge difference. Often, I can feel the release while I am using them, as a muscle finally lets go of its tension and everything around it relaxes. I used the balls yesterday afternoon and then went for a run in the evening. My body felt refreshed, limber, and there was a spring in my step that hasn’t been there for a couple of weeks.

I’m going to try incorporating the Therapy Balls once or twice a week–especially after I ride–to see if more regular usage keeps helping my muscles retain their flexibility and elasticity.