Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Free Training, Day One

I have a younger sister who is also a student of the horse, and we share with one another our new findings and such. We also critique one another and work through all sorts of problems together. The other day, she was talking with me at the kitchen table about some of the other forms of natural horsemanship that she has been studying recently (I say "forms," but really, they are just other aspects). One of them was free training. I am familiar with this form, but in case my dear readers are not, free training is training without ropes and halters. It is based around the idea that the horse will always be your gauge, that you will know you are doing things right if your horse does not leave you.
Well, this part of our discussion particularly got my gears working. You see, I am a reasonable person of sound mind and body, so I do not choose a form and stay faithful to it to the point of worship. I believe that knowledge is a cyclic and radiative substance that cannot be contained and completely trapped inside one place. That is why I must continue to draw on the entire world's archive of knowledge. I decided that I would deprive myself of ropes and halters in my ground work for one month. Starting today, I will document to the best of my abilities how this month of liberty, free training, naked, call-it-what-you-will ground play.
The reason for all this nonsense is very simple: I need it to become better for my horses. I have reached a level of respect online, but I have experienced a great need to develop in my horses a stronger desire to be with me. Neither of them hate me: they will both come to the gate when I arrive, put a lot of effort into tasks, let me do all sorts of things with them, and will both follow me. The problem is, I have plateaued. I am not growing. I have reached many goals, and now, as I set new ones, I have found that the biggest goal is not a maneuver or level of collection, but for my horses to do anything with me and be happy about it. That means I have to change, and that means that the rope, which is great for teaching respect to the horse, but a crutch to the human who is ready to take the relationship to the next level, has to GO!
You may ask why I am only focusing on groundwork, and the answer is that in riding, you still have a direct connect to influence the horse, unless the horse bucks you off. Both of my horses are great without a bridle and saddle, and one does not even need a string around her neck. But they cannot get away from you when you are stuck on your back. Yes, they could run off with you or buck you off, but at this point in our relationship, that level of fear and not-want-to do not exist. They can say they don't want to, but they cannot go somewhere to get away from me, to tell me just how upsetting I am. At liberty, you push to hard, and they are gone.
Through this program, I am going to have these goals for myself:
  1. become more aware of the "whole horse" as he or she is before my eyes. I will need to be more sensitive to his or her body language than I already am so I can read exactly where the limit is and exactly when the good feelings can be found. A part of the body language that I don't focus on enough right now is the movement in the body: "how choppy is the gait?" and "how tense is the body?" rather than: "what do his eyes say?" and "what are his ears saying?"
  2. become lighter. I am sure that there are times when I am using pressure that is much greater than necessary. We all want our horses to be light to touch, and by being consciously aware of the possibility that my horse can leave me, I will become softer in my phases or cues subconsciously.
  3. become more relaxed. Part of what makes horses so enjoyable to me is that they are a calm in the storm for me. But in the summers, during show season, I become a monstrous, goal-oriented, hyperventilating psycho-woman, and this summer was particularly hard because I was actively fighting my anxiety and knew the mistakes I was making, and was often losing the battles. Well, I want to abolish that attitude within myself of trying to accomplish something other than a relaxing and beautiful relationship with my horse. I know that when I get that, the fancypants stuff will come to us naturally.
I have two separate sets of goals for the horse part: one for each horse. Even though both horses have the same basic personality, their age difference and their simple individualism makes them two completely different creatures. Misty, my Egyptian Arabian, is difficult to motivate and becomes skeptical easily. She is typically sure of herself and likes to throw me back on my pockets (figuratively) when I start to get my nose pointed in the wrong direction (up, that is). There is no doubt, again, that she enjoys being with me, but she does not always willingly stay in my presence. Without further ado:
  1. runs to the gate to meet me. currently, she walks to the gate. The way that your horse catches speaks volumes to how strong her desire is to be with you and how well the last time went. After a rough session, she will acknowledge me, but I have to play the catching game for x amount of time (x goes up as the session before gets worse). It would be an honor if I was such a good part of her day that she ran to the gate to meet me.
  2. sticks to me relentlessly. Misty has great draw to me, I just want to up the ante. No matter where and no matter when, I want to be her leader.
  3. circles me at a close range and out in the open. currently, she only circles in the round pen, and with that, around the edges. better relationship=better circles
Blu, my Quarter Horse Appendix, is a doll. Here is his list:
  1. has less frequent bouts of unconfidence. at liberty, Blu tends to get bracy, like he needs me to hold his hand through everything. I will be looking for more confidence as the month goes by.
  2. sticks to me no matter what. like Misty, Blu can get sluggish and just not stick to me as well as possible.
  3. more lift in his feet. Blu tends to drag is feet a lot. over the summer, I created a program to work on this, and he is so much better, but he is ready to start making it over jumps.

November 17, 2009 (it's late, now, so it may post as November 18)
45 minutes (Misty 25, Blu 15) Afternoon

I put a handful of pellets in my pocket and went into the pasture, intending to do a simple liberty session while I waited to meet someone at the farm. Misty met me at the gate and I gave her three pellets and rubbed her for a while. I wanted her to relax with me, and to be honest, I wanted to relax, too. My attitude was not to evaluate our progress, but just to be and let things happen. I found the big ball that my student donated to our toybox for the horses. It was left out in the pasture, so she had already existed with in her environment and I decided to introduce her to it formally. Her expression and attitude also helped me make this decision: she was very relaxed and calm, seemingly ready to go nowhere.
The first thing I did was take the dried up stem stalk of a weed and use it as a stick to tap her withers. This is my signal for her to move forward, but the weed is so light, that it would help me find how soft I could be. She walked forward very easily with the gentlest tap all through the session. I also focused on releasing when I saw the thought pop into her eyes--before it even began to happen in her body. I found that this helped to speed things up. I asked her to touch it progressively with her nose and hooves. I used treats to reward her, and she became intrigued with the ball. Next, I bounced it off her. She showed a reaction, but just the slightest of uncertainty. The minute her expression began to smooth out, I quit and gave a treat.
I could bounce it off all over her body (I did not try the neck and head today), so it was time to move to bouncing it off the ground. She did not like the sound it made, so I began to run away with it as I bounced it to provoke her interest. Well, she came running after and past me, tail flagging, head up, energy high. She stopped by her horse leader. He is one of the ways that I can know whether or not she feels I am the safest place to be, because if she runs to him, I am obviously not. So, I started to bounce the ball to her in a zig-zagging and back-tracking fashion. She had calmed down quickly and now just watched with a hint of unsureness. When I got to her, she was relaxed and I gave her a treat for that.
I returned to what she was confident with as far as the ball went: touching it. I took it a step further, though and had her push it. When it rolled, I would drive her to it again. Well, I wanted her to go a little farther after scooting here to there until she was pushing it hard enough for it to go 3 or 4 feet. I pushed it with my foot, planning for more of a 10' venture, but it kept on rolling and rolling when the wind caught it. I watched her eyes go a bit dimmer and she turned and walked away. How interesting, for me! She was not going to go get it, one of two things: she didn't want to expend the energy, or she still did not associate cookies with her effort with the ball. Either way, I was just thinking, how great is it that she can tell me that was too much too fast (if she'd had a rope, she would not have even tried to leave, and I would have gone on blissfully ignorant).
I made things right with her really quick (that meant approaching her with her permission and being with her for a little bit) and changed to Blu. He had been standing at the gate ever since I arrived and was very curious about the ball. He was well behaved as I brought through the gate, waiting behind me while I latched it back up.
Blu was not as sensitive as Misty: it took a long time of weed-tapping to get him to go forward sometimes. The ball was a non-issue, which is no surprise: Blu has a huge playdrive and is usually confident with new objects.
When I finished, he was more sensitive and responsive.
I was very light and happy after this session: so glad that I did this!!

Natural Horsewoman Out.

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About Me

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I am a young horsewoman with a million things on my mind. I have been a student of the horse all my life. As a little girl, I had a desire to understand horses on deeper levels. I believed that there was no such thing as a bad horse, and I believed that all horses were beautiful. One might say that I was a naive child, but I guess I don't have an excuse anymore, because I still believe all of that, and Parelli Natural Horsemanship is helping expand on this perspective.

What We Are Currently Playing With

  • Moving Close Circles at Liberty
  • Soft, Balanced Canter on 45' Line
  • Zone 5 Driving