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Archive for the ‘Horsemanship’ Category

My friend Eileen, who owns James and Madison, né Windsong’s Justa Handful and Justa Royal Sojourner (respectively) by my stallion Windsong’s Justa Firestorm, sent me an article that speaks volumes to the growing trend of close examination of the natural horsemanship trend. Every trend, even those so ingrained that certain features become permanent features of their general landscape, has its heyday and passes over eventually. I have been a rather careful critic of much of natural horsemanship as it is practiced by the average horse person, and I have to confess to being thrilled that Eleanor Van Natta, author of the blog, Sage by Nature, wrote a Nov. 25 article in horsecity.com entitled, A Face-Off With Rope Halters: They’re Knot So Natural After All . The cute title gives an indication of one of her objections to the ubiquitous natural horsemanship-type rope halter.

typical rope halter

Eleanor describes a vet visit in which the vet removed her horse’s rope halter and replaced it with one of her own before working with her horse. For Eleanor, this was a rude awakening. She describes herself as shocked to discover that her vet did not feel rope halters were conducive to horse whispering. According to the veterinarian from that day, Dr. Suzan Seeyle, D.V.M., of Quantum Vet in Yelm, WA,

Rope halters are very lightweight, which is nice, but the knots that are positioned in various places and number are very harsh and severe on the sensitive face of the horse. Rope halters can certainly demand a horse’s immediate attention, but is communication through pain really what we are after? When was screaming more effective than whispering?

She goes on to wonder how many amateur horse owners and trainers who enjoy the rapid results they get with the rope halter can get the same results without it. She also wonders whether they are aware of the potential fact that the “release” or reaction of the horse is due to pain or anticipation of pain rather than obedience and responsiveness.

Just about every user of the rope halter is a victim of flashy marketing or the persuasion of someone who should know better. I know I was. Virtually every trainer and riding teacher I ever had used them–except Wizard Liz, who, in her typical Yankee fashion, “could see no real use for those silly things.” Unless used by exceedingly capable hands (think John Lyons), the potential for causing harm and teaching our horses that the halter is a control device rather than a communication device is too great.

She says,

I kept finding as I scanned and Googled the internet … that the rope halter was an effective means of communication (except for a few horror stories in forums of horses tied up in rope halters or the halters left on them for extended periods of time). But are you simply communicating that you can inflict pain and discomfort on this animal with minimal effort? I had been convinced by natural horsemanship books and videos before buying my halter that the horse is teaching himself with these halters because of the release from pressure. The word pain was never actually used the words used were “discomfort” and “pressure”. A horse is so sensitive as to be able to feel the landing of a fly that weighs less than the weight of a few average sized raindrops. I have made many mistakes with my horse over the years, but perhaps not respecting the lightness of a fly has been one of the biggest mistakes of all. I am a big believer now that there is something inherently wrong with putting something on that sensitive face that can inflict pain for the sake of control and all the while calling it “natural”.

In addition to the dangers caused by ineffective use of the halter in training and the design of the halter itself, there is the plethora of inexpensive knockoff rope halters with poor workmanship and incorrect proportions. Together with inexpert handling, a cheap halter from the local tractor shop might as well be an instrument of torture. Yet the untrained student of natural horsemanship is thrilled with the immediate results. The horse moves backward off the cue from the leadrope and halter lickety-split.

There are some really good rope halters out there along with the bad. The ones I used are made by The Halter Lady, who uses the finest materials, and only makes custom-fitted halters. If you want a halter with no knots on the noseband, that’s what you get. She also makes sidepull halters. I used to love hacking in a sidepull.

Another objection to training with a rope halter is that it makes it awfully easy to pull a horse off balance with just a small correction. The lead rope attaches either permanently or with a snap to a spot just under the jaw. Causing the horse’s head to tilt in this way is definitely not natural. You won’t see a young horse do this in the pasture. Proponents of the rope halter will tell you that it’s pressure on the poll that makes the thing work. But it’s really a tug under the chin. Watch it happen–the head tilts to one side first. Then the poll gives. Folks who start young horses exclusively in the rope halter and lead often have trouble teaching their horses to get and stay in balance for this very reason.

I am glad folks are starting to see that, along with the good things it has brought to the world of training horses and riding them, natural horsemanship has some faults. We need to examine everything we do very carefully.

Later this week, I will describe the Tellington TTouch concept of haltering and leading, and how I finally came to accept and embrace it in lieu of the rope halter. It wasn’t an easy conversion for me, either. Eleanor, I share your pain.

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Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.

You’ve probably heard someone say this, or maybe even said it yourself. But it was Sylvia Boorstein whose turn of phrase reintroduced us to the idea that just being, instead of doing, might help provide solutions to some of the problems we create for ourselves today: the frenetic striving for perfection, the avoidance of uncomfortable truths, etc. The gift of this concept came as the title of one of Boorsteins books, a kind of guide to creating your own meditation retreat.

As a representation of one of the main concepts of Buddhism, Boorstein’s exhortation is truth-in-a-nutshell.

Since humans generally do not see things in the most uncomplicated way possible, we often exhaust ourselves making up our own version of reality on a platform of our individual histories, fears, memories etc. We frighten or discourage ourselves before we even get going. It is believed that animals do not burden themselves with such destructively creative forms of perception.

Mindfulness is seeing things as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be….Pleasant and unpleasant experiences, the Buddha explained, the joys and pains of everyday life, are not the problem. The yearning and despising—the imperative in the mind that things be different—the extra tension in the mind that disappears when things are seen clearly and understood fully, is what the Buddha called suffering. Mindfulness—the relaxed, non-clinging, non-aversive awareness of present experience—is a skill that, like any other skill, requires developing.

Years ago, Boorstein developed a kind of do-it-yourself mindfulness retreat for people who weren’t yet ready or able to take the plunge and visit a mindfulness center. I love this idea of setting aside time to care for our selves in a kind of constructive restfulness. Not only for the mind, but also for the body as we ride.

As we ride???? Yes!

Sally Swift employed ideokinesis (the use of imagery to effect changes in the body) very creatively in Centered Riding®. Riders can use the tool of ideokinesis to imagine an active resting state in the saddle.

Active resting? Yes again!

Try this first at home. For five or ten minutes, lie down on your back on the floor. Don’t drift off into the mind-numbing daydreams you might be tempted to allow. Put your arms by your side, palms up or down, whichever is comfortable. If you need a towel under your knees or a pillow under your neck for comfort, get one. Imagine gravity as the active entity it is. Watch it work on your body as it helps your muscles release tension. During the process of release, notice any areas of tension that have become patterns in your body. You will recognize those spots where gravity has to work harder. Send messages of gratitude to those areas, for they will be your teachers. Also, send gratitude to gravity for assisting you in releasing them. You may find that you have to be very clear in giving suggestions to your body to assist gravity in its task: “allow my neck to be free of tension,” or “I’m noticing the rise and fall of my breath, but this makes me breathe faster.” The most important thing about active resting is doing nothing. Don’t just do something, lie there. Do not cling to any idea of what you must accomplish during the exercise, even if it is relaxation. You might find that this is even more refreshing than a short nap.

With practice, you will begin to develop more awareness of your body and its relation to the earth. “Well what do you know? It’s not my body’s job to resist gravity! I can allow my body to move within the earth’s gravitational field without undue stress on my muscles! All I have to do is allow it!”

Remember that the path of least resistance is always available to you, because it will be important when you try this exercise in the saddle.

Now that you have set up the conditions for awareness of your body in space and maintaining a space of least resistance, you can try this active rest in the saddle. Your horse will be thrilled. At first you may worry about this idea of some kind of floppy-muscled Zen session in the saddle: is it safe? Think about the last time you stopped getting in your horse’s way, and your muscles stopped competing with his to get the job done. There was a much better flow, wasn’t there? That’s what this exercise is all about. You can set up an active resting retreat in the saddle anytime you want.

Make sure you are in an enclosed area, such as a fenced arena or round pen, just in case anything goes wrong, or your horse is really fresh or extra delighted to be liberated from the constraints of your muscular control.
Swing yourself into the saddle, make sure to give your horse a good rub on the neck, and explain to him what you are doing. This is important.
Keep your eyes open (you’d be nuts to close them!!!). Be aware of your surroundings but try not to focus on any one thing. Hear the sounds around you but don’t listen. Alertness without that laser-like focus of the straight-line, left-brain thinker is the goal. You can do it. It’s only a few minutes’ worth.
Remove your feet from the stirrups, let go your vice grip on the reins, and practice the same non-doing that you tried at home. If you are willing to let go of any desired outcome, you will feel gravity work to join you and your horse together as one being.
Being physically together without an agenda, allowing the stress of your muscles’ resistance to gravity (and to the horse) to melt away. Remember those resistant muscles in the active resting exercise at home on the floor? Recognize them now, give them the extra attention they deserve, and your will feel your horse do the same.
Notice what you feel beneath you. Has the horse’s back come up beneath the saddle to meet you? Perhaps it has shrunk away? Does his breathing match your own or is it slower?
In time, each of you will learn to allow your bodies to stop resisting one another. Your mutual awareness can flourish and grow in this space.

Active resting can be expanded to include riding, as in the practice of walking meditation. But that’s a post for another day.

The active resting retreat is a useful tool because the rider is setting up conditions where insights are likely to arise. In this intimate encounter with your horse, you rely on perception rather than action, receiving rather than sending. It’s like becoming a child all over again. Bringing a “beginner’s mind” to being with your horse can awaken us to a fuller, wiser understanding of what riding him really is.




© 2009 enlightened horsemanship through touch and Kim Cox Carneal

NB Thanks to Debra Crampton who wrote Nothing Doing in this month’s Centered Riding eBulletin for giving me the impetus to finish this this post (started many months ago) as well as the term, ideokinesis, which I add to my working vocabulary with delight. It’s interesting to note that the “Construcive Rest,” “Active Rest,” and other techniques for generating attentive stillness do not trace back simply to the Alexander Technique or to any school of Ideokinesis, but to Buddhist meditation techniques as described by the historical Buddha more than 2,500 years ago.

I learned of Sylvia Boorstein’s DIY Meditation Retreat concept in a recorded interview at Shamhala Sunspace.

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My first trainer was very wise when she reminded us, “What you think of as pressure and what your horse thinks of as pressure may not be the same.” I spend a lot of time wondering about the nature of pressure and the need for it. How to train and ride with it and without it. Especially while writing myRoutine Tasks…post, which made me feel awfully guilty about just about everything I’ve ever done with a horse.

So what is pressure?

Cheryl Ward at I Feel Good, My Horse Feels Good has nailed the definition. No need for me to struggle to reinvent the wheel.

Here it is:

What is Pressure?
Let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic.

(Before I begin, I have a disclaimer. The only reason I have disclaimer is when I tell people I predominately train without pressure, they tell me, with their fists clenched, that it’s impossible and they look like they want to punch me.)

Disclaimer: I am not against the use of pressure. I am against pressure being disguised as gentle, warm and fuzzy or a force-free alternative. I am against negative reinforcement being the only line of communication with a horse. I am advocating a balance of using attraction based methods and pressure based methods in the proportion that horses spend using each during their day. I am for using attraction-based methods to introduce pressure to a horse. Often when I train this way I don’t have to use pressure. I am for understanding the differences between using pressure and using attraction.

Okay, now let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic. The basic gist at one of these clinics is that horses communicate with pressure and that their deepest heart’s desire is the release of pressure, to be left alone. The conclusion is that the release of pressure is the reward. This theory has left me empty.

Pressure is defined by Merriam Webster online as:

The burden of physical or mental distress.
The constraint of circumstance.
The application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it.

You’ll have to visit the link to Cheryl’s blog to read the rest. It’s SO worth it! She has a wonderful counter-definition of the concept of ATTRACTION.

Enjoy!

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You clip the lunge line to his face and send him away. A flick of the whip or the rope and off he goes. Short time, long time, whatever, he walks, trots or canters in a circle. Your purpose for this exercise is clear in your mind: exercise, smooth transitions, an attempt at calming, lameness detection, etc. His understanding of the point of lungeing? ZERO.

Mounted or on the ground, you tug gently on the lead rope in the direction of his withers to ask for flexion to the left and then to the right. You practice this each and every time before you ride. Sometimes it’s a part of all the groundwork you do each day. A routine. It’s good horsemanship. You have a clear intention of what you want to achieve: a quick and soft yield of the head. Your horse’s attention. You have his attention al lright. But do you know what is in his mind? I wonder if it’s this:

I learned what you want in this flexion thing in a few tries. I don’t understand why I have to do it over and over. It’s boring. If we don’t do something new pretty soon, I’m going to find something else on my own. Oh hey, look what I can do…!

Serpentines.

Backing up on the ground.

20 meter circles at the walk and trot.

Lead changes.

Trotting over cavaletti.

Sliding stops and spins.

Most of what we ask our horses to do on a daily basis is not as inherently harmful as dressage practice with rollkur. Yielding the head and trotting in 20 meter circles can’t physically hurt a horse unless he has health problems or injuries.

It can be harmful in other ways, however, as Frédéric Pignon says,

What people do not appreciate is that every time a horse submits to pressure, whether subtle or overt, he is diminished. Probably the great majority of people who achieve their own ends by making their horse submit are not even aware of what they have done. It is a sad fact that a horse can be made to do many things by breaking his will. If he can be persuaded to give his assent freely and pleasurably rather than give into man’s pressure or clever techniques, he is not diminished.

In Do We Really Know What We Do?, I posted the quote above also. I don’t believe we can contemplate what Frédéric was telling us enough. Horses who cannot find meaning in what they do are sour. They “misbehave.” They go lame. What we often do not realize is that it’s our fault.

Each and every time we as ordinary riders, just like the stars of the horse world, ask our horses to repeat an action they have already learned, or to do something contrary to their nature as horses, we are asking for a kind of submission, “making” him do things that make no sense to him. Most of horseback riding is not natural to horses, to be sure.
Horseback riding and training require a certain amount of repetition. This is irrefutable. But how much is enough? How can we be sure that our horses’ activities have clear and valid meaning for them?

One way is to change the way in which they are rewarded for producing the desired behavior. The pleasure of spending time with us is a reward for social animals like horses. We don’t always have time, but making time within our riding and training schedules to add a few extra moments of just being together with no goal in mind, and using this as a reward/positive reinforcement adds meaning to the tasks we ask horses to do.

Another way is to increase the amount of physical contact we have with our horses. Not the kind with the whip or with the leg. The kind where you both are on the ground and your hands are on the horse. Touch is a miracle communicator because horses are sensory creatures. Like us, touch in equine life is an important part of the establishment of social hierarchies and family interaction. The reward of human touch is powerful for such tactile animals. You’ve seen a horse with a metaphorical sign reading, “will work for food,” but most of them also will work for touch.

Do what comes naturally to your horse. An Icelandic Horse is bred for moving out across country. Their minds are not suited to riding in circles in arenas. If you are going to ask them to work in confined spaces at tasks they don’t inherently understand, make sure they get to do what they do understand, on a daily basis. Ride out, at speed!
Likewise, a Percheron is not built for, nor does he have the mindset for, the rapid changes in tempo and rhythm of dressage. Don’t even try it! I’m not suggesting that owners of Percherons take up hauling logs instead of riding. But perhaps long rides in the country are a better option for the health and sanity of the horse.
The much-abused Thoroughbred also comes to mind. OTTBs just aren’t constitutionally suited to a great many of the jobs we give them. Sure, they are in plentiful supply. They are inexpensive and easily replaceable. But consider suitability for your desired activity first. And if it’s just impossible to match breed to discipline, make sure you keep in mind my suggestions above for keeping your horse sane: avoid mindless repetition of meaningless tasks, give plenty of downtime in your company, and make sure to touch touch touch! I have one further suggestion for helping your horse find meaning in his working life.

The best way to ensure that horses find meaning in what they do is to change things up. On a routine basis. Yes, we will have to put considerable thought into this.

Non-habitual movements, like those described by Moshe Feldenkrais, capture the horse’s attention in a way that habitual actions do not. When practiced in a relaxed atmosphere without provoking typical fear responses, any new activity involving all four feet, the head or tail, or the back or belly engages the horse’s mind in a new way. Expanding the horse’s body image through new and different (non-habitual) movement sequences brings attention to parts of his body he might not be fully aware of (we all know those horses who forget they have hind feet and leave them parked out, for example). Asking a horse to do new things allows you to become more aware of their habitual neuromuscular patterns and rigidities as well because you are seeing them in a new way. You can then expand his options for new ways of moving and living his life more fully and comfortably, not to mention with greater ease of performance.

The Tellington TTouch Method™ has a variety of ground work and ridden exercises called the Playground for Higher Learning . Through brainwave studies, it has been shown that working on the activities in the Playground activates both hemispheres of the equine brain and calms the sympathetic nervous system, the part that excites the flight reaction so common in horses when they don’t understand what is being asked of them. The opportunities for learning are increased greatly. It is interesting to note that when navigating corners in the labyrinth, a horse’s BETA brainwaves are activated. They are actually thinking logically while working in the Playground for higher learning.

Why get excited about a horse thinking? When lungeing or repeating the activities we might need endless practice at, horses turn off their brains. They get sour and sometimes they get angry. A sour, angry horse who is merely becoming fitter as a result of all this mindless exercise is not the horse we want. This does them a profound disservice and does not further our goals.

Guiding a horse deliberately and gently through non-habitual paths while in close physical contact is the very essence of mindful horsemanship. The bonus is that it’s fun!

It’s easy to make any of the items in the Playground for Higher Learning. You can use the stuff you have lying around the barn or purchase it cheaply. It’s not heavy and can be set up and then moved out of the way to ride by one person in minutes. Here are some examples of what you might want to include.

The Zig Zag

The Tractor Tire

The Labyrinth

The Fan, or Star

The Triangle

These tools are not your typical obstacle course. They are not intended to be negotiated at speed, or as objects for desensitization. Rather the object is to practice focus and self-control, and to increase flexibility, body awareness, balance, coordination, and confidence. Increased patience is a wonderful side effect of working in the Playground. You can immediately see the benefits of working youngsters here.

It is beyond the scope of this post to describe how to use each of these obstacles. I suggest that you visit the Tellington TTouch website to read about them in more detail or get a book or video. Better yet, take a training so that you can practice with a horse before trying yourself. The TTouch methods of leading a horse through these obstacles is an integral part of the exercises. Last week in Bodega Bay, California, horses worked in these obstacles, and on a plywood platform raised 6 inches off the ground, in addition to walking through a gradually-built path of straw bales with people standing on them, eventually holding bright pool noodles in an arch over the horse. I saw striking changes in these horses in a short time–just four days of work two hours a day. These horses ranged from a youngster aged three (not yet mounted) to an elder aged 23 (unrideable due to past neglect and possible abuse), to a Grand Prix dressage horse with impeccable training and manners.

Horses’ capacity for learning and engagement with their human handlers never ends. It is our responsibility to meet them more than halfway by providing the opportunity to do so.

I’m not suggesting that we all drop our favorite equestrian disciplines in favor of turning our horses out into a field and visiting them daily with a carrot, a massage and a turn in the Playground. Though that would be excellent. We have horses so we can do things with them. Balance is absolutely necessary. It takes skillful means to strike and hold that balance. It isn’t easy, and it takes more time than grabbing the horse from the stall or field, scraping off the dirt, slapping on tack and circling the arena 50 times.

Rather than seeking yields (submission), we might instead seek cooperation, fun and learning with these tools, which will allow us to pursue our personal horseback riding and training goals without completely eradicating the soul of the horse. In this, we can all learn from Frédéric Pignon and Linda Tellington-Jones, whose mutual goal is to uphold the sanctity of the horse.

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The ongoing discussion about hyperflexion, rollkur and excessive pressure in horse sports can be addressed by this simple quote from Frédéric Pignon from the new book, Gallop to Freedom:

What people do not appreciate is that every time a horse submits to pressure, whether subtle or overt, he is diminished. Probably the great majority of people who achieve their own ends by making their horse submit are not even aware of what they have done. It is a sad fact that a horse can be made to do many things by breasking his will. If he can be persuaded to give his assent freely and pleasurably rather than give into man’s pressure or clever techniques, he is not diminished.

Bonnie over at Alderlore posted this quote as punctuation to a fabulous series on CATCHING YOUR HORSE. Randy Snider, have you been reading?

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I have been out of range of the internet at a time when I should have been blogging my head off about an issue very important to me.

The rage against the FEI and its apparent apathy toward the practice of Rollkur* has admirably been taken up by the folks at Dressage Disgrace. In Head Movements Affect Breathing and Drooling, they show exactly how Rollkur negatively affects just one system of the horse.

Another blog that has taken up the cause with care and consideration is camera obscura. Please take a few minutes to read what Billie has had to say over the past weeks. She is quite eloquent.

If you haven’t already, please visit the petition site and sign your name to ban Rollkur at FEI competitions. Click here to ban Rollkur and add your name to the thousands of people who genuinely CARE about the welfare of horses and wish for it to be considered above all thoughts of performance and glory. Hyperflexion is not beautiful.

A line or two in your own blog posts to include the petition link would also garner more signatures. Kick the door, please.

Just Say NO to Rollkur

*the Wikipedia definition of Rollkur was clearly written by someone wishing to present both sides of the debate. There ARE no benefits to the horse in Rollkur. The benefits of Rollkur accrue exclusively to the rider and trainer.

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The California Tellington TTouch Training for Horses is finished… and new adventures begin tomorrow.

Tonight I pack to prepare for a super-seekrit mystery side trip. I’m not sure if I’ll be allowed to blog about it for a while, but if I’m given permission, you’ll be the first to know.

This has been a fantastic week of horses and people (all women, it turned out) at Skyhorse Ranch in Sonoma County, California. The range of types of horses we got to work with and their needs was broad and fascinating. I fell in love with a young gentleman sporthorse named Kai, whom I look forward to telling you all about in a later post.

We also had the pleasure of working with Octango, the Grand Prix mount of dressage star Barbi Breen-Gurley, who is so engaging and eager to learn, even at this stage in her illustrious career. I’ve never gotten my mitts on so nice a horse before, or had the privilege of seeing so talented a partnership in action, all without force, dominance or over-collection or overflexion. Octango is as sound mentally and emotionally as he is physcially. What a thrill!

At times I felt as if I’d spent the entire week running backward in deep footing with a videocam in my hands (watch those cavaletti!). But this is not true. Though my primary role was to observe, I did a lot of bodywork and groundwork (the teachers will tell you, “not enough!”), and was able to get in touch with horses again on a more intimate level than I have since I was hurt about a year ago.

When I saw the first horse I was afraid I would burst into tears for wanting to bury my face in his neck and breathe him in. That’s how much I have missed horses. Being the “official witness” in this training also meant I got to sneak in secret nuzzles and whispered chats while the others were working. Horses just love conspiratorial affection.

I saw some amazing transformations in horses again at this training–things you would think impossible if you haven’t seen the ground and body work of TTouch. After seeing this work again this year, I now wonder how other clinicians film those “before and after” bits in their videos. What is the interval between the “before” and “after?” How many takes were required? I got some interesting video showing striking changes in behavior and carriage that occurred in just a couple of hours. Sometimes in a couple of minutes. No special effects, no lungeing, no coercion.

It was nice to be reminded in a concrete way that what I have been talking about on this blog actually does occur, sometimes with surprising speed an grace. Many horses went back to their paddocks after a morning or afternoon session with expressions of calm satisfaction on their faces to match those of their people.

So far, all good news from Virginia: things go well for my daughter.

I’d better go pack, because tomorrow I have to leave my beloved Caroline’s place in Sonoma for more learning, more fun and then a return to my badly-missed pets!

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