Monday, April 30, 2018

Fire, torture, and losers - Part 2

The media I was promised never materialized, so I'm giving up and posting a wall of text.  Enjoy!

 Day two dawned warmer but still darn windy.  My body ached.  I had to get up early to take care of my beast.  It’s been awhile since I had to go muck and feed.  It took a lot of coffee to get me moving and willing to deal with the day.

I promptly threw Theo in the round pen.  He could be outside with some hay and water for the lecture part of the day.  The instructor went over how horses see the world and how their vision differs from ours while Theo trotted, rolled, snorted, and generally acted a fool for most of the morning.  A lot of the lecture focused on how the differences in light perception, color, and depth perception affected the way horses see the world.  What seems clear to me might be a confusing blur to my horse.  I do have to disagree with the old theory that horses don’t transfer visual information to both halves of the brain (proven through experimentation to not be true), but for the sake of the clinic’s goals, most of the material was a helpful reminder.

Then, because Theo was already in the round pen, he was used by the instructor as a demo for how horses perceive things and how it makes them move.  I got a reminder of where my ground work is supposed to be.  No more ignoring the little dragging, the stepping in front of me, the wandering feet.  If I want him to listen when I'm in the saddle, he must listen on the ground.  I've been slacking.  There's no reason he can't stand like I see with the western broke horses.  I just haven't told him to.  It took the instructor about five minutes to impress upon my horse that he was not to move unless given permission using nothing more than some pressure, specific body language, and a couple of corrections.  Huh.

We went back into the ring and Theo was suitably chill.  Good thing, since he was right back into formation work.  He would occasionally pop his butt and curl, but we were paired with the instructor on someone's horse and he really, really didn't care about Theo's display.  His motto is 'torturing the inferior equine species', closely followed by 'I love it when they hate it'.  The more Theo hated it, the tighter things got.  I was less amused as I was the one sitting on the temper tantrum, but the temper tantrum dwindled as time passed and he realized it was a lot of work for no gain.  Also, I was too busy staying in place in the formation to give his theatrics attention.  Coincidence?  Not a chance.  As his assistant said 'I think you've finally got his number'.

Obstacles started out easily enough.  Plywood on the ground?  Theo didn't even flick an ear.  Bridge?  Pool noodles?  Ha, we've done that a million times.  Then the instructor busted out the smoke bomb.  It's one of those signaling things you use on a life raft.  A big cloud of orange smoke hissing out of a little can.  Several of them made a big pop when started.  Theo was freaking not having it.  We learned about keeping the feet moving and never ever letting them turn away.  They can circle and stare, but they have to keep moving and they have to keep looking.  You slowly spiral in as they figure out that they're still alive.  After a can or two, Theo decided that it wasn't going to actually kill him.  Each new can would make him skitter to the side again, but each skitter was less violent.  He sneezed and shook his head each time he stepped into the smoke, but it was more disgruntled protest than full on flight response. 

The squad car with the siren was a bit of pleasant surprise.  Theo stood his ground even when the other horses jumped and shied back.  He could see it, he could understand it.  He watched it very intensely, but walked up to it with minimal fuss.  By this point, I'd had loose reins pounded into my thick skull.  If your horse is thinking about stopping or flying back, don't give them any kind of excuse.  No pressure from two reins ever when working through a spooky thing.  One rein only and ideally, none.  I sat with loops in my reins while that squad car approached and Theo stood like a statue.  So long as I acted like nothing was wrong, he would stay dialed down.  I was very proud of us both and started to think we had this figured out.  Then the instructor busted out the gasoline can.

Fun fact, I don't like fire.  Theo had been leaning on my confidence all day.  The clinic was as much about desensitizing the riders as the horses.  He poured the gasoline in a line in the sand and lit it.  The horses scattered like leaves.  I learned that it's the movement of fire that gets them.  It's low, it's moving, and they don't understand it.  They see unstable ground and don't want to put their feet near it.  The wall of smoke really doesn’t help.  We started working in a big circle around it, slowly spiraling in.  Our barrel racer just shrugged and marched over it.  Thank you, thank you RB.  He was the lead horse through the smoke and the fire because it didn't bother him at all.  Theo was braver than average, but couldn't cope with going forward when the rest of the herd was spooking back.  If I put his nose on RB's tail, he could cope.  Once Theo was coping, another horse got on his tail and we made a little train.  The transition from cluster of spooking horses to train occurred several times with one of the brave horses in the lead.  Theo even got to lead when working the siren.

I threatened to steal RB and stick him in my trailer.  Cutie patootie QH that thinks smoke and fire is boring?  Gimme.  She never left her horse unattended after that . . . 

I came into this expecting to desensitize my horse to things like blowing tarps and stepping on weird things.  I didn't realize I'd also be desensitizing him to being in a ring full of amped up horses that are running into each other.  By the end of day two, the QH mare blundered into him and he let it go.  He'd been crowded and touched so much that it wasn't a big deal anymore.  He had no choice but to cope.  He marched around with a horse close enough to touch his tail and I barely noticed we'd picked up a friend.

Let's all be clear, at no point did this get easy.  There was a lot of him stopping dead and then trying to spin away from things.  Many of the obstacles took multiple attempts once the sensory things were added (sound/smoke/fire).  He did not like the fire.  When perpendicular to it, I could trot him over because he read it as a jump.  Going next to it?  NOPE.  Stepping over an obstacle with fire around it?  DOUBLE NOPE.  When I finally got him over it, it was with wide eyes and much snorting and rushing.  There was very little chill going on.  When I put him to bed, we were both looking shell shocked.  And there was still another day to go.

I collapsed as soon as I got home and slept like the dead.  I dreamed of horses spinning and police sirens.  It was almost worse knowing exactly what we would be facing on the third day and how averse my horse was to the idea.  But I also had my first inklings of hope.  I’d already sat everything my horse had to dish out.  Theo had already marched over things that were once deemed impossible.  Constant repetition was starting to give him the idea that he should go forward when I squeeze because I know what I’m doing and he would be fine.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Fire, torture, and losers - My desensitization clinic, Part 1

On Friday I hauled Theo 20 minutes to a barn we've visited many times.  I tucked him into a stall, he threatened the horse next to him, and started eating.  Same old routine but with an extra side of sass because it was his first real outing of the year.

Then I walked into the barn and right into a PowerPoint presentation with horses walking through fire and orange smoke, under tarps, over bridges and through pool noodles.  There was a barking police dog, a squad car with lights flashing, even a freaking helicopter.  Wut?  I did not sign up for this.

This was day one of my three day desensitization and equine confidence clinic.  Three days of practice to get my precious dressage pony ready to face down the terrors of the sandbox.  It's nice to get three days in a row with the pony.  I figured it would be a great three day weekend of bonding and picking up new skills.  I did not figure on fire.

I felt better when I realized many of the people in the pictures were wearing uniforms.  And clearly we weren't going to be managing any drunken crowds like the ones in some of the photos.  Those pictures were clearly just for show and not anything I would need to do.  Surely.  I sat down and started listening while we discussed what the plan was.  Our instructor was a man in his sixties, gruff, with an accent from Mobile, Alabama.  He was an actual mounted police officer and had been training mounted police for decades.

The instructor and PD the dog posing with the local police that came on the last day to check on all the noise.  PD is 15 and still giving horses hell.

First up would be drilling in formation.  Not because we were becoming a drill team but instead to get us used to the idea that we said 'go here' and our horses said 'yes'.  It makes you look up and focus on things outside of your horse.  You can't say 'close enough'.  This also gave me my favorite line from the clinic.  'Dressage is all about death and destruction'.  When you do it the way we do it?  Yeah, it is.  After spending an hour or two drilling we were scheduled for lunch, then we were working on some movements and our first obstacle. 

Wut?  Five hours in the saddle on day one?  No in hand work?  No introductions or discussion or bios on the riders?  And drilling with horses my horse has never seen and will probably want to kill on sight?  What about my concerns?  Didn't he want to know about my problem pony's issues first?  I didn't know if I was really up for this.  And when we mentioned how cold and windy it was and asked if we were starting in the indoor, he replied no.  It was perfect conditions.  It was at about this point that I realized we were not going to be gently desensitizing anyone, human or equine.

Winds were whipping about and the instructor was setting up his speakers when I got out there with Theo.  My pony was very up so I put him to work.  I figured 15 minutes of real work would take the edge off while we waited for the rest of the riders (I can tack fast when motivated).  He felt really good, bouncing along on a contact.  I picked him up some and did transitions to get him listening to me.  Thinking it would help, I brought his frame up and did some difficult transitions to make sure the brakes were fully installed.  We did a nice, long canter to get him to blow his nose and chill.  He didn't care about the voice on the loudspeakers, he'd done enough shows.  And then I went and lined up with the other horses.  Yeaaaah, if you're trying to get your horse to accept wind and static over the speakers and strange horses in his space, DO NOT COLLECT HIM AND ENGAGE HIS ASS.

My horse in the green saddle pad contemplating the death of the buckskin Gyspy mare on his left, he really really disliked her.  QH mare on his right, barrel racer and national treasure RB in front, and my friend with her pinto draft cross eventer in the back.

It was a super eclectic group.  A Saddlebred mare with her teenage girl in western tack, a Gypsy mare that was 4 years old, a QH barrel racer, a 17h RID jumper, a young ranch bred QH mare, an Arab of unknown discipline, and a draft cross eventer.  Oh, and papi, the dressage horse complete with blingy browband.

The speakers went to static, the rest of the horses jumped, and my POS horse jumped a couple feet up and tried to teleport.  I already had him on the bit and sitting on his butt so he was ready to go.  He was expecting to move, to work, to be a bit electric.  Whoops.  So we start walking around in pairs in a line and he got ticked super quick.  It was my worst nightmare brought to life, everything I'd avoided doing with mi papi.  This horse is looking at him, that horse is in his space, everyone was walking too slow, they all needed killing.  He started curling and popping his butt.  The instructor said 'I know behind the vertical is all the rage in the dressage ring, but quit pullin' on his mouth'.  And I was thinking 'better curling than killing the Arab next to us'.  Several horses could not get over the speakers at the end of the ring combined with so much wind, blowing blankets, and the .  A lot of our formations turned into clusters of spooking, spinning horses.  This did not help me when trying to keep my horse's hooves and teeth to himself.

After drilling for over an hour with no injuries and only a couple of attempts to savage the other horses, it was time for lunch.  Theo started plunging and spinning in his stall.  I threw him in a round pen and let him buck and fart and gallop for twenty minutes during the lunch break.  I brought him back in for the second session and did not pick him up.  At all.  I put him in trail horse mode with loops in my reins.  Like magic, he totally chilled.  The instructor asked if I'd drugged him over lunch.  I said nope, just made him sweaty.  Another great line:  'Sweat is the brain's lubricant'.  The group worked on stopping, walking, turning without hands, and turn on the forehand.  Theo was obsessed with stepping over the cavaletti that were being used as guides, so he did not impress anyone.  But once out of the guide poles, he demonstrated his perfect turn on the forehand in a full circle.  We also showed off our sidepass.  The idea was to sidepass up to the instructor, bonus points if you ran him over.  Apparently there are horses out there that respect a person's space.  If there's one thing Theo can do, it's use his massive body against someone.  He didn't even hesitate, just plowed right into the guy.  Good boy, papi. 

We did one obstacle on day one.  It was a little bridge from a trail class.  No big deal, but the first horse to go was out Arab and he was having none of it.  Wouldn't go near it.  We had to wait 30 minutes while that horse was brought around and around and around.  No force, no rush, just around and around until he started to step on it almost by accident.  Then two feet.  Then suddenly just walked over it like it was nothing.  It was a serious reminder that patience is everything with horses.  He could have roughed the Arab up or rushed him, but then the bridge would be a thing.  Instead, the Arab gave the next horse a lead over it and in no time, the whole group was chill with this obstacle.

I was cold and so, so sore from sitting so many spins, bolts, and bucks.  Theo doesn't spook a lot with me, those stabilizing muscles don't get a lot of work.  He spooked more on day one than he has in the past year.  I also don't ride five hours in a day.  I crawled out of the saddle and limped back to his stall to tuck him in for the night.

 I did not want to go back.  I was frustrated and rather overwhelmed.  Theo spooked so much just being in the ring that I didn't think there was any chance of surviving what was coming next.  I felt picked on since he made so many disparaging comments about the sport of dressage.  I didn't expect things to be so rough and ready.  I've gotten used to a certain level of support.  When Mary Howard kicked my butt from one end of the ring to the other, I didn't feel like I was in the wrong discipline or incompetent, just incorrect.  I was also cold and very hungry, so a bit over sensitive.  That is what I get for not researching a clinic before I attend.  I've done bombproofing, but usually in a format to avoid chaos and spinning.  This format was a shock to my system.  In hindsight, that was the point.  We all stay inside our little bubbles and lay out our boundaries that we don't dare cross with our horses. 

I got punted right over those boundaries with extreme vigor.  But that's for the next installment.

Saturday, April 7, 2018


I thought this entire winter was a waste, but no.  We got some shit done.  I practiced the opening trot pattern for Second 1 in my lesson today and the words 'elastic' and 'obedient' were used.  He simply steps into shoulder in now, it's no big thing.  I can now focus on how best to use my time between B and E to make sure that second shoulder in is just as relaxed and nice as the first.  I need to square off that turn to keep him balanced and give him a mini stretch to avoid a build up of tension.  We're now working on sequences of movements instead of figuring out how to do the movement.  Rein back is much harder when I just finished doing a shoulder in and my horse is convinced I want him to go sideways again.  I need to make sure to ride the curve of the serpentine and not square things off because I'm thinking too hard about the simple change.

He was not pleased with the snow

I guess this means we are officially schooling Second level.  I'm currently scheduled to do my debut at Second level at a schooling show on May 12.  April 29 I'll be in my western gear and trying to figure out the whole western dressage thing.  We worked some of those western dressage movements today in my lesson as well and discovered that lengthen lope on a 20m circle is freaking hard.  Why aren't we doing this on a long side????  Theo's brain was blown and then he blew out the shoulder.  It's a good thing I've got a couple weeks to explain this concept to him.  It seemed so easy on paper but Trainer A had us do it once and we realized we had a problem.  Steering and lengthening at the same time just doesn't work right now.

I started giggling during my lesson because it's just so fun to ride an educated horse.  I blew one of my simple changes when I didn't reset the bend in the walk.  We'd been working counter canter on Wednesday and apparently that made an impression.  He took the cue to canter, added it to the balance that was still to the left, and picked up the counter canter.  I went to fix it and Theo just popped a flying change to get us on the right lead.

We still have a whole world of work to do, we're not looking to go out and campaign at Second or anything.  The transitions in canter are still a bit dicey, particularly down from medium.  Once we get big, he's not interested in getting small again.  We can do it in trot, but canter is just too much work.  He'd rather break to the trot or barrel around without shortening up.  Medium trot is good 60% of the time, the other 40% it's tense and braced because I'm pretty sure I'm going to bounce out of the saddle.  That one isn't him, that's all me.  He occasionally throws a temper tantrum and tries to curl and drop behind my leg because this new test is hard and he doesn't like to work hard.  I expect we'll have a world of trouble getting him to work in this new balance when we're somewhere new.

But we're there.  We're schooling the test and polishing the movements we have learned.  We're going to take it out to schooling shows and practice doing these movements in public.  I'm starting to actually believe that I'm going to get my Second level scores.  Maybe not this season, but it will happen.  I will also be getting that qualifying score for my First level freestyle.  Last time I didn't realize we were off track.  We've corrected and reset.  I feel much more confident that when we go out this year, we're going to get that 60%.  I won't move up for sanctioned shows until I've got those solid scores at First, so I'm very motivated.

Riding an educated horse is such a pleasure.  It makes the years of work worth it.  Somehow, Theo became an educated horse and I'm starting to ride him like he's educated.  I'm looking forward to spending this season learning how to present a horse at Second.  The fails should be freaking amazing for the audience.

Thursday, April 5, 2018


I try not to anthropomorphize too much.  Yes, it's fun to suggest my horse is plotting, sits in his field and contemplates ways to wreck his blanket, plans his days around impressing the mares in the next field, but I know none of that is true.  Theo thinks about food, water, rolling, and the safety that comes with the herd.  If it's not in front of him, he's not thinking about it.

But once something is in front of him?  It's real and he reacts to it.  He's an emotional creature and has a lot of feelings about stuff.  When I come out of the barn to walk to his field and he whinnies a greeting to me, I know he's greeting a returning herdmate.  He turns and trots up to the gate because he knows my arrival brings lots of grooming and cookies and other things that make him feel good.  His body language with me is animated and interactive.  He's very 'talkative' for a horse.  He wants grooming, he wants to play, he wants a cookie.  Yes, there's a fair bit of nipping attempts, but it's the communication kind.

Contemplating biting me

I went to get him the other day and I saw the way he pranced up to the gate.  His pupils were dilated, his ears pricked.  He was very excited.  I put him in the cross ties and he proceeded to show me where he was most itchy and needed a long curry session.  We went down to the ring and put in a solid schooling session in the western gear (my first ride where I felt comfortable enough in the western gear to put in a serious school).  Someone that only recently met Theo mentioned how different he looks for me.  I laughed and said 'well, yeah, I have spurs'.  And she said no, he just looked so much more engaged.  When I talk, his ears flick.  He doesn't ignore me.  Apparently, he doesn't do that for his other riders.

I think my horse loves me.  It's such a human word and concept that I hate to use it when talking about horses, but it really is the best word for it.  There's plenty of research to show that horses have a chemical reaction in their brains when they see certain people.  He definitely reacts to my presence in a positive way and seeks me out for company.  He treats me the same way he would a close herdmate.

Theo and I have been working together for almost exactly three years.  We're going into our fourth show season together.  We've hit the point where I can feel his breathing change before he spooks, giving me time to head it off.  He can feel my weight shift and knows that I'm about to ask for something.  I know when he's hit his limit and needs to stretch and relax.  He knows when I've hit my limit and that he should really quit giving me a hard time.  I take a deep breath, he echoes me.

Best buds

I was watching him teach someone else how to jump in a group lesson.  Another horse was having a flail and I automatically said 'whoa' in that odd, two tone way I do when lunging a horse.  Theo stopped dead on the other side of the ring, completely confusing his rider.  Seems he'd been watching me the entire time.  I've learned that I can't cluck, say whoa, or say his name when someone else is on him.  He assumes anything I say is for him.

Despite all of my efforts, I think Theo is really a one person horse and I'm his person.  Yes, he is ridden by others and does a good job with them.  He's different with me.  Trainer A still finds his rides challenging as he's just as likely to flip her the bird as he is to cooperate.  It has to be frustrating for her when I ask for the same thing and he'll at least give it a try.  He wants to do it for me.

He's not an easy horse to love.  He bites a lot, has temper tantrums, hates all of his blankets, spooks, strikes, is lazy, gets way 'over excited' about things, and is in general a nuisance.  He thinks he's a stallion and acts studdish enough that my vet thought testing his testosterone levels was totally logical (I didn't do it, too expensive).  But he's also a total sweetheart that loves to cuddle and soaks up any positive reinforcement.  He hates to be wrong.  He loves to be powerful and to be free to act on that.  

Flashback to that time I tried to show him as a hunter and he tried to kill the other horses
I deal with the nipping, the threats to kick, the random dives out the left shoulder and bucking.  He deals with my locked up left hip, busy hands, delusions of grandeur in the form of trips to shows, and erratic schedule.  It's wonderful that we stumbled into each others lives.  We're both kind of crabby, opinionated, and distrustful of strangers.  Neither of us are easy to live with (ask my hubby).  But we're complimentary shades of crazy and that's all that matters.