Monday, October 24, 2011

If You Love It, Let It Go

A lot of my good thinking for writing happens in the shower or while I’m cleaning stalls. Today it was the latter. I’ve been meaning to write a Rounder post for days, but just hadn’t been hit with the right inspiration. I am a student, I am a learner. If I do nothing else in life, I hope that I will always always learn. Learn from my mistakes, learn from other’s mistakes and learn from doing. Light bulb moments happen for riders, too!

I was having trouble with a mare I was getting ready to show. She’s fairly young and has only been under saddle for a year and a few months. She did the basics well. W/T/C, turning, stopping. She even leg yields, shoulder-ins, and is catching onto haunches-in/travers and walk pirouettes. I wasn’t having trouble with movements. The problem to me was that she was heavy. My reins felt like they were weighted with bricks and there was a constant pull on my hands. My trainer gave me a lesson and I voiced my concern over this “problem.” As it is mostly all of the time with horses, I found out that the problem was not the horse, it was me.

My trainer observed me riding the mare then began to teach me. I did as she instructed, and like a light bulb flickering before turning on, something in my head hit the switch. I had been living in the half-halt for too long. I had been pulling and holding, waiting for the release instead of softening through my elbows and having the horse give in the release.

BIG IDEA: The horse gives in the RELEASE not in the pull.

It doesn’t make sense in things other than horses. If you want to break a stick in half, you bend, push, and pull until it snaps. You don’t bend it down, let go, and then see it break on its own. But in horses, that is exactly what happens! You hold, drive, soften, and then the horse carries herself instead of relying on me to carry her. I was missing the last ingredient because it didn’t make sense in my head to let go when she hadn’t “broken” or given in to the pressure yet. I had been correcting her for leaning on the reins when all along I should have been addressing the pull factor. I was there for her when she wanted to lean, no wonder she thought the reins were for leaning on!

I don’t know that I am doing the best job of explaining this all, but as I was saying earlier, I am still in the process of learning this training stuff. Horses are animals, not static objects. Take loading a horse onto a horse trailer, for example. You don’t just set it on the ramp and pull it in. You want the horse to willingly comply to your asking them to step inside. The lead rope is used to convey this as well as your body language and voice. It’s a pull and release on the halter and notice that the horse steps forward after you have given the release, the slack in the rope. It is like fine tuning an instrument. Even the slightest, smallest movement can make a difference. A word of praise when the horse turns its head to focus on the task at hand, a sigh, and lowered head. Knowing just how much to give and take on the lead rope and knowing when to let them stand and touch the trailer floor or when to pull and urge them on.

You shouldn’t have to push and pull your horses around. You should strive to make them respect you and have them move into or out of your space as you instruct. Less is more. Learn from observing horse people (they don’t need to be a “trainer” to know what they are doing) who have learned from years and years of experience and have been under the instruction of other who have done the same. They know how to speak horse and they know how to get respect from them, no matter the shape, size, age, or training of the animal. Patience and timing. That is what they all have in common and that is what I need to learn. I wish there were more horse people in the world who understood horses as animals, not objects or human children. I hope to someday become one of them, no matter how long it takes to get there. You can too.

*By the way, I apologize for not putting up posts in due time. I have no excuse and I will try to do better from now on. I struggle heavily with procrastination and wanting to give you all my very best and not just a paragraph full of rainbow unicorns, so it is just a matter of me getting my act together and becoming a real author, not one who just dabbles when they feel like it!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rags to Regionals!

When I first arrived on the farm, I was quickly introduced to two young stallions. They were four and five at the time and had only been halter broke for a couple of months. One was steel gray and other was a faded bay. They were by the Oldenburg stallion, Routinier, and out of Percheron/Thoroughbred mares.

After a few days into my internship, I was taught how to lead them in and out from turnout and a stall in the barn where they were being taught to be tied and handled. It must have been a wet spring because the dry lot was deep with mud. The stallions didn’t seem to mind trading it for a dry stall bedded down with straw. I didn’t like leading the bay one into the barn because he would jump and spook at every little thing that seemed to be out of place in the aisle. The gray one, however, strode confidently past it all. I began round penning the both of them and teaching them how to wear tack. I should mention that I was also being taught how to do these things because I had never even touched a stallion before coming to the farm, let alone start a horse undersaddle. I had to call my trainer into the stall often when I was working with the bay one (turns out he is actually “seal brown”). The problem was that he wouldn’t let me pick up one of his hooves. In fact, he would raise the opposite foot and put all of his weight on the particular one I wanted to lift. Then he wouldn’t let me slide my finger into the side of his mouth in preparation for a bit. My work with him consisted of going into the stall with him, tying him to the post, and trying to pick up his feet and touch his mouth. Slowly, we progressed.

Another intern, who already was experienced with starting young horses undersaddle, soon came into the picture. She started both of the stallions, but made quicker progress with the bay horse. He was less prone to explosive bucking and was her favorite. I watched them work in the round pen while she explained to me what she was doing. She didn’t last long and when she left, I was suddenly in charge of riding the stallions. The stallions were flip-flopping it seemed and after getting bucked off of the gray one, I began to work solely with the other. He was calmer, beginning to understand his new job, although he was still a little frightened by it. I rode him in the round pen until I felt brave enough to come out into the arena. I still felt nervous when I went to canter him because all of a sudden, his head would drop to the ground, making his back round up beneath the saddle. A feeling similar to the hump (humpiness, humpy-ness?) before a bucking fit. But he never bucked. It was a while before I got him to canter with his nose not dragging in the sand. He made up for it by not being a wild stallion. In fact he was quite manageable. I just had to be careful not to scare him when correcting him for losing focus.

He had most of the winter off and although I did lunge him periodically, not much training happened during the coldest months. As it warmed up, the riding and training picked up as well. In May we stepped into the show ring for the first time. He had been under saddle for roughly nine months, if you didn’t include his winter vacation. To say I was nervous would be putting it lightly. Rocket was nervous too, as it was his first time off of the farm. I unloaded him and put him in his stall at the show barn and he stood there amidst the shavings and trembled. Aw… I lunged him and then had my trainer hold us on the lunge line as we hovered along, slowly gaining confidence along the way. Show day arrived bright and early. Rocket worked out of being introverted as the day continued on. He LOVES getting scratched on his neck and soon had a fan club of scratchers who would fawn over him after he did his tests.

As time does seem to slow when waiting for something important, it felt like twice as long, building up inch by inch to the regional championships. Qualifying proved to be easy and we got the scores we needed at our first recognized show. All we needed was more experience under our belt (and girth)! And experience did we get! FHF Rocketman and I went on to six shows altogether before regionals finally arrived. As we rode on the high of a very successful weekend of showing off, I took a few minutes to reflect on how far we had come in the past year. We both felt so much more confident in the show ring, like we both knew our jobs. Somehow, through all of the sweat and tears (and I’m not joking about either of those!), we had become a team. As they say in the dressage world, it felt like we were “harmonious.” It earned us fifth place in our Training Level championship class of twenty-nine competitors. I sure can’t complain about that (Yvonne here to say MAJOR congratulations to Miss Sarah)!


It felt good because the road had not been easy. After that first show, Rocket had blasted into full-fledged stallion mode and screamed at anything that moved and had hair. Even more unnerving? Just two weeks before regionals he started the trend of being backed off and acting like an obnoxious stallion. True to Rocket-style, he never did anything blatantly disobedient, but it was big for him when you consider that he never had acted up before with me. We worked through it both times, with a lot of coaching and pep talks for me. And this isn’t even mentioning all of the ups and downs that go along with showing. Like the time that Rocket feared for his very life when he saw a black and white pinto Gypsy cob stallion flailing hair everywhere and all the times I for sure thought my heart would stop beating and I would die right there in the saddle. As we stood in the line-up of eight horses with a pink ribbon on our bridle, I couldn’t help but feel proud as Rocket trembled beneath me and tried to leave the arena.

I can’t wait to see what next year brings! (And I am so utterly grateful for this wonderful opportunity to ride, train, and show such a talented young horse.)
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