Monday, January 16, 2017

playing the long game

Generally speaking, horses do not have an infinite capacity for pressure. Some can take more than others, (that's part of what made Isabel so special), but they all have limits.

I've understood this to mean that it's my responsibility to apply pressure thoughtfully and economically. So that, instead of depleting the horse's capacity to handle pressure, I build on it. I imagine that this 'ability to handle pressure' is a bit like a muscle. It has to be challenged and worked in order to grow, but push too far and you'll get a strain or tear.

To me, this means breaking things down into smaller and smaller pieces. It means being clear about my desired outcomes and objectives at any given moment. And setting the horse up for success such that the horse can also actually recognize when he has been successful.

This also means separating out individually important but mutually exclusive aspects of horse training.

Because it's been my impression that most of what I do with horses can be categorized into supporting one of two main purposes. But these purposes aren't necessarily related, and actually sometimes one can detract from the other. At least at the beginning, with a very green horse.

hackin around on gorgeous january days!
My ultimate goal is performance. So what is necessary for high performance?

- Skills development
- Practice and schooling
- Aptitude and talent
- Jumping all the things
- Dressagin' like a boss

There's another (GIANT) piece of the training puzzle tho, that is not necessarily directly related to performance. (recognizing that pros and more skilled horse men and women can get by at fairly high levels without this other piece)

So what is this piece? The goal of having a horse who is easy to handle and pleasant to be around. Ya know. The stuff we might generally think of as the horse's security blanket, the skills that'll help him land softly if performance isn't his jam and he needs to find a new home. This includes:

- Can lead / tie / be tacked up
- General ground manners
- Travels well
- Probably not going to kick that 8yo kid who just walked directly up behind him

casually observing the horse next door lose his marbles. also notable: you can't tell from the pic but this horse is spotless after hours spent grooming the day prior
The thing is. These really truly are two separate and distinct goals. As seems to always be the case with horses, zeroing into one skill can sometimes mean sacrificing in another area.

Very often, a strict focus on performance can mean glossing over other details. And, coming from the other direction, a focus on calm quiet behavior can often mean we'll settle for lesser performance in order to avoid rocking the boat.

With a very experienced horse, this matters less. It's easy to feel like a schooled horse should 'know better' about staying inside the parameters of both of these focus areas. Isabel, for instance, was expected to mind her goddamn manners at the trailer AND perform to the best of her ability in the show ring. Every time. (Usually lol... )

But that's kinda what I mean by the 'long game.'

Ultimately I want Charlie to be proficient in both of these areas. I want him to be easy to handle for anyone, be pleasant to be around in any circumstances. But I also want him to be my show horse. And it sure would be nice if he becomes a pretty great eventer.

But I already know that his tolerance for pressure is.... well, it's not terrible. But he's no Isabel in that department.

So when it comes for 'exercising that muscle' as the case may be, I see these two focus areas (performance vs literally everything else) as being distinct, and having potentially additive (but also kinda potentially subtractive) attributes.

so happy to be outside in sunshine with no blankets! obvi i had to let him hang outside for a little while longer before i brought him in
Meaning I try to avoid working on both at the same time - specifically avoiding working on everything all at once. Or. Maybe we will work on both, but expectations for one side (let's say ground manners) will be lowered as expectations for the other (performance in a lesson) are raised.

This means that at Charlie's first show, his first time in that atmosphere, I expected and allowed a regression in his ground manners. He didn't need to tie at the trailer. He didn't need to stand to be tacked. There was no fighting about any of that - all that pressure was off. Because I needed to be able to apply that pressure elsewhere - in the warm up and show rings.

Given Charlie's limits, I need to be economic with how, when and why I push him. Fussing about any one small detail is likely to backfire. Having it out with him (or any horse) about standing still or tying or not being a total nuisance to tack up might mean that he's already a frazzled and mind blown by the time I get him into the warm up ring.

For me, in the earliest stages of anything at all relating to the horse's future as a performance horse, it must be as easy as possible for that horse to be successful in doing the thing I want it to do. If that means getting help at the mounting block, or with trailer loading, so be it.

so clean and shiny and happy in the winter sun! he even got his luxurious tail shampooed the day before!!
Because, again, my ultimate goal is performance. Everything else is secondary. Let's be real: if that wasn't true, I'd still be doing dressage with Isabel instead of working with Charlie. Let that sink in for a moment.

The flip side, tho, is that the vast majority of my time spent with horses is not at events. In fact, it might not even be in schooling and lessoning. I'd actually wager that everything else - the grooming, tacking, low key hacking, and general time spent with ponykins adds up to more time than the serious riding.

So...  ya know. It's kinda critical that the time be well spent too, that it also be enjoyable lol. Right?? As an amateur, I'm not really cool with the idea of a horse that's a monster to deal with or that needs three people and a stud chain just to get it out of the field, even if that horse could win me every single ribbon in all the land. Bc that's just not worth it to me.

Which explains why you've seen me drone on so often about the ground work I do with Charlie, about our work on trailer loading, etc etc. Bc all that is definitely a priority. Definitely a goal, second only to the horse's development as a show horse.

but ermagherd wtf this muddy goon!!! he just hadddd to roll ugh, in like the five minutes between when i took the above photos and then went back out to get him. 
So I guess my observation here, tho, in this long and drawn out ramble, is that they really are different goals. Not necessarily opposing (for instance, obedience is a key characteristic of both), but not always in alignment.

My approach to dealing with Charlie and pressure is to choose my battles. To be clear on what I want at any given moment, on what I'm asking - and letting everything else go as it may. With the idea that eventually many of these pieces will come together. First Charlie will learn how to be successful at this one specific thing I am asking him to do (so he learns how to, ya know, actually do that thing) and in time we'll be able to add in more pieces and refine technique.

But..... this is also the first horse I'm totally 100% responsible for restarting fresh from the track. So I dunno how it's all going to shake out haha. Except it's probably a safe bet that I make more than a few mistakes, and maybe leave a few holes behind lol.

winter barn door vistas!! hard to tell by the trees are coated in sparkling melting ice
Because on the other side of the coin, there seem to be lots of folks out there who have more of a 'zero tolerance' approach for certain behaviors. That it doesn't matter what the circumstances are, the horse is always expected to do xyz, no exceptions. Which can make sense at times, I suppose, as horses often benefit from having very clear black and white expectations.

Personally, tho, I save those lines for behaviors directly relating to safety, and everything else is allowed a greater degree of ambiguity or variance. Tho. Well. I've also been accused of being a bit of a softy lol, an enabler. That maybe I am cool with things that wouldn't fly elsewhere.

So I'm curious here - what are your thoughts on how to build a horse's capacity for pressure? And where do you see yourself in the training scale? Are there certain tasks or behaviors that you expect the horse to adhere to once it's been learned? Or do you tend to allow backsliding or regression in one area when you switch focus to another?

Does it depend on the horse? Maybe you've had some horses who would take advantage of any wiggle room? Or others who desperately needed space and time to process each infinitely small step?


  1. I'm extra careful about Stinker and pressure and I do pick and choose my battles but there are also certain behaviors that are not allowed not matter what. Anything from the ground that is dangerous nipping, crowding my space etc. I cut him some slack when I'm riding. For example at the show I did a moving mount every time. If I had insisted he stand still he would have been too frazzled to work so I let him circle the block and hopped on. For me it is really a horse by horse decision.

  2. Very interesting. It is really easy to pick useless fights, but I also see where setting up the rules from the start can be beneficial. With Gem, she knows that certain things just can't happen no matter where she is or what is going on - no stepping on me, no biting, no kicking anyone at any time, and she must stand still tied to the trailer at all times. I just have no interest in ever going back to reteach those things once she has learned she can get away with them. But...she is 18 years old and darn well knows better. I'm sure it would be a lot different if I were in your position with Charlie just figuring everything out.

  3. Love this thoughtful post! I feel like so much of this depends on the horse as an individual - some can handle more pressure than others. Generally, though, I am zero-tolerance on behaviors that can hurt someone. Horses ARE NOT ALLOWED to: bite me, kick me, or run me over. I don't care how green or pressure-averse they are, if they try any of those things they are going to have a near-death experience. The rest of it.. I can be patient about. And often a lot of those ground-manners behaviors like standing tied, standing at the mounting block, being attentive while leading, trailer loading, etc. just take some patience and quiet redirection. I find that these skills do, in a way, transfer to under-saddle performance work too, as the horse 'learns how to learn' so to speak. But yes - you do have to prioritize sometimes and pick the skill that's more crucial to work on in the moment!

    1. definitely. that prioritization is so key. like you'll never see me taking my horse to school about bridling when we're at a show getting ready to ride bc the horse was a little spastic. that conversation can wait for another day!

  4. Love this post. Especially as an ammy, I want to balance performance and pleasant to be around. Yes, having a talented horse and winning ribbons is fun, but it's not fun for me if the horse is wretched to handle. At Cinna's first show last fall I absolutely cut her slack in a lot of areas -- areas that I 100% expect good behavior from Ruby in since she is so much farther along. It's absolutely a matter of setting them up for success in the small things, which gradually become bigger things. Excellent post.

  5. I'm with you on all of this, except I could stand to be more of a softy at times - something and am actively working on. I am a STICKLER for ground manners. I expect my horses to stand tied and do so politely without being total and complete GOONS about it. I don't want their behavior to accidentally injure anyone working around them for any reason no matter how minor. Horses will be horses, absolutely, but when the environment is normal and chill, there is rarely reason to be a flailing monkey when tied. I also expect them to lead in a chill and polite manner. Absolutely no dragging the human around or crowding the human's space or getting in front of the human. No, no, no.

    Different horses absolutely handle pressure in different ways. I've got three very different horses so far as that goes. The geldings are VERY forgiving of my mistakes fortunately, so I use them to learn with and teach me before dealing with the sensitive mare. Each has taught me so much because of their differences.

    I haven't had a solely performance driven need ever, though with time I certainly move more in that direction. I've learned enough lessons in the past 5 years with Griffin though that I know I need to take my time to have anything worthwhile happen, so no matter how much I want to compete, I feel certain I'll still take the time in the beginning to develop a good citizen that is enjoyable to be around before I go flying into the competition scene - no matter what it may be! Very much like how you're moving forward with C and with the total understanding that things that are 100% at home may be (will be) less than 100% in a new environment. Depending on the new environment and the stresses determines how much of a percentage drop I'm willing to deal with. I think as long as they're not putting people or other horses in danger, I'm willing to deal with a fair chunk. Safety first! (Even if it ends up being safety third in other aspects of my life lololol)

  6. I have clear expectations about some basic safety issues. If the horse bucks/bolts/rears/bites/kicks, I shut that down immediately, with prejudice. On other stuff, PARTICULARLY on new material or in new situations, I will allow extra time and worse performance. My beginner-level expectations for new material are minimal-ish: "Try to do the thing. Do not be an ass." A novice horse who is being less than ideal but not dangerous gets worked with, over time, to help him understand what my expectations are while he gets experience with the new environment or new task and becomes more comfortable with it.

    In practice, let's look at the HCIB hunter pace last fall. Bird and Tin were hunter pace virgins, 5 and 6 year old arab geldings that live together and are brothers. So, we (the people) had built in "get off the trailer, wander around in-hand seeing the sights until horse relaxes" time and "tie to trailer and eat with brother at haynet" time and "saddle up and walk around leisurely in-hand" time and "throw a leg over and walk around sensibly" time until finally we got to the start and actually had a go, wherein they were a little excited (Other Horses, Look Look Look) but we one-reined and walked and one-reined and walked until they got themselves under control again. And it was fine after that.

    When we got back, there was built-in handwalking for cooling time & stand at the trailer for hay time for them to unwind, and then we went again, much more sedately, after lunch.

    Was it a perfect outing? No. Horses were young and eyebally and kind of squirrely and nervous. (We the riders expected that. There was a lot of green going on -- eyeballing and paying lots of attention to other horses and being distracted and way too forward and so forth.) Other attendees kindly asked if they were young. We allowed as how they were.

    Was it a GOOD outing? Yes, indeed. We did the thing! The horses did a pretty tolerable job and Bird was mostly very brave at the fences. But it wasn't perfect -- Tinnie was high and tight off the trailer and needed twenty minutes of hand walking before he sighed and relaxed and he never really got out of the splatter-poop mindset. Bird, normally a kick ride, had about 1/3 of one brake for the first half of our first loop but since he'd been off the farm more, he handled the strange horses and general excitement of being Out and About better than Tinnie. Tin, for the first half of the first loop, mostly ran right up Bird's butt to stop. (They live in the same field and get along; kicking is not a problem here.) This was not a "perfect" outing by any stretch of the imagination but (a) we knew what to expect and (b) we didn't need to be saved by anyone else and (c) neither of us was concerned or unable to handle the issues we encountered. Also, at no time were we a danger or a problem for anyone else on course. Some faster-moving groups came through and we just moved over and let them go by us (our horses facing them) while we proceeded at our pokey beginner pace.

    When they are more experienced, there will not be nearly as much green baby horse silliness. But they need to go places and do things to GET the experience. These early outings are not perfect, but if you have an appropriate set of expectations, they can still be pretty good. We had a great time at the hunter pace and felt really good about how the boys did. (We could have come home all crankypants about how poorly they did... so green and looky and nervous and so many one-rein stops and omg blah blah blah. Exact same outing, entirely different description/perspective.) It's all in how you look at it. :)

  7. This is a great post and is very close to my views on it as well. You sound like you are doing a great job of laying the foundation that is so important on our horses. Once you have the foundation, you should have some basic trust and from there it is much easier to create a trained horse.

    That muddy good pic had me laughing so hard, so many times I have been the recipient of that. "Oh Hai....Oh...bye? Guess I should roll....Oh Hai again!"

  8. It's such a fine line. If I let Paddy misbehave while grooming and tacking (i.e. messing with me, walking around, refusing to move his butt when asked, not picking up his feet in a timely manner, etc) then I can almost guarantee that he'll walk off at the mounting block and then be a complete jerk the first 10 minutes of the ride. But if I shut all the behavior down right away - "we're working now, you're on the job" - then he usually stands politely at the mounting block and is much more obedient from the moment I sit in the saddle.

    Having said that, every horse is different and you gotta do what works for you!

  9. It really comes down to good horsemanship in the sense that you need to be able to read the horse, their mindstate and the circumstances and compare it to the ultimate goal of that moment as well, which sounds very much like what you are doing. You need to be able to read a horse and tell what is the source of each behavior, and then just as you said, break down the tasks into smaller pieces. The degree of breakdown is specifically determined by the horse's state, be it dominance/fear/boredom/playfulness/curiosity/etc. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen people at shows ignore or not be aware of their horse's subtle cues they are being overfaced and then it ending up in a blowup or accident. So much of a bad situation can be avoided by awareness and a bit of thought into a horse's capacity for dealing with pressure. Great post!

    1. totally agreed on using the horse's current state as the measuring stick for how we react.

  10. My approach to applying pressure has evolved over the last few years- I used to be MUCH more demanding and less of a softy. Dealing with Gina has forced me to become more forgiving (for lack of a better word). She is a tightly wound, unpredictable weirdo. We work much better as a team when I take the pressure off completely, especially at shows. I don't expect her to stand tied. I don't expect her to stand still. I don't demand she start working right away. Gina responds to pressure with tension, and it turns into this vicious, ugly cycle. When there's no pressure, she's much more relaxed and will generally behave herself and put in good work.

    Moe can handle a lot of pressure, but I don't apply much. I mean, he's the favorite, so he can wander off at the mounting block, go around with his head in the air, and still get a bag of powdered sugar donuts. :P

    1. your approach with Gina matches a lot of my own thoughts too - the tension is really where the problems start. if we can avoid tension, we'll get better work and the horse will learn better. obvi not all tension is avoidable tho haha.....and sometimes we just gotta deal with it.

  11. Ha I could have written this. I'm a stickler for ground manners to be sure, but Courage is one who could take NO PRESSURE at first and I spent a long, long time building up from one stride of this to five strides of this to a lap around the arena. And beyond.

    It's not glamorous, but for him, it's a game changer.

    1. charlie is similar in that if you release pressure the *instant* he even begins to give the correct answer, it catches his attention. then you repeat exactly the same - and BOOM, skill learned. that's not to say that sometimes he doesn't want to give the answer, or that he's not resistant, but he needs that instant gratification to learn.

  12. This was lovely and thoughtful and I wish it had existed 3 years ago when I was like " I can restart OTTBs, let's get a feral horse with 6 rides on it!" It's been a rocky 3 years of me sacrificing all of the important horse stuff to reach performance goals, and then realizing I had a horse who was basically unmanageable on the ground and slowly filling in the blanks. Getting to the point where I could treat her like a grown up horse and expect her to come through for me was amazing last year; it's not a perfect journey, but I can't wait to read about you and Charlie as you venture through :)

  13. Lol. I dunno who would call you an enabler! ;)

    I'm pretty well known for letting my old campaigners get away with murder, because they know the rules and a quick refresher will bring those rules back immediately. With younger or greener creatures, I tend to rule a bit more with an iron fist. Part of that is for my own comfort, I don't know or trust what their behaviors will be. Part of it is for training.

    Under saddle I tend to struggle with this. I'm such a perfectionist and take a lot of riding on myself, I can steam-roll right over my equine partner's confidence. Thankfully, I'm aware of the issue and Pig has done a really great job of whacking me in the face (literally on occasion) when I do it. I'm getting better, but it's a weak point!

  14. Really good post with lots to chew on. With Carmen she needs very clear expectations that go with us- she can't run me over and she can't move around when ground tying. But that's because the fidgeting escalates and if I can stop it she will actually settle.

    under saddle I'm a bit more fluid depending on what I want to accomplish.

    1. i've definitely seen the horses who will keep escalating if we never take the time to tell them to chill out. isabel was kinda the opposite (she needed to have her outlets haha) but its' funny how they are all so different!

  15. This was an awesome read! Definitely something to think about.
    My babies are expected to have good manners. Not negotiable. They box, they bath, they tie up, they do not try to kill people. In that way I guess ground manners are almost the priority for me - partially because good behaviour under saddle stems from good behaviour on the ground, and partially because way more people are likely to be hurt by a horse that's bad on the ground as opposed to a horse that's just not great under saddle.
    That said, in a high pressure situation like a first show, the expectations come all the way down. We just breathe and accept the horse's best no matter how bad it is on the day.

  16. Sounds like you are ruminating on this subject a lot

  17. Every horse is different. Heck, each horse can be different day to day. I don't think there's a perfect answer for any of them.

  18. I don't really want to talk about my approach, since I think we all know how well that is working out.

    But damn if pressure in one area =/= pressure in the other area isn't my life. Sometimes it's like Murray would be demonstrating it in the reverse for me -- he could either behave on the ground or under saddle but not both. If he had a melt down in the barn over (apparently) nothing, our ride would be pretty good. If he tacked up really well, I knew that I was in for one hell of a ride. That relationship doesn't hold true any more, necessarily, but I certainly understand the economics of pressure now more than ever.

  19. 100% clear expectations on safety (I suppose I'm echoing a lot of others on this). I have more wiggle room in the arena unless it comes to rearing or stupidity that endangers both of us or other riders in the arena. Ground manners are the most important as we're in a barn with over 100 horses and countless horse and non-horse people wandering around at all times

  20. This is really, really interesting! I've never worked with a green horse, and it's not something I'm super interested in, but I find myself apply similar principles even to my finished horses. For example, I expect less if they haven't gotten a lot of turnout, or at the first show of the season when they haven't been off the farm for 6 months.

    1. yea i think that's the right attitude - weighing out how the environment and external factors can impact the horse

  21. Great post. I really struggle with the ground work side of this with Kachina. She needs a lot of consistency to learn the correct behavior, and I worry that if I sometimes let things slide it will just confuse her about what the expectations are. On the other hand, there are days when she won't stand still, doesn't want to pick up her feet or get tacked up, tries to walk away from the bridle, paws incessently, etc. I want to ride and don't have hours of time and endless patience to meticulously school all her behaviors.

    The cause of the negative behaviors is also a big factor. Does the horse just not know better? Or are they scared/tense? With my horse and standing in the barn, it's a bit of both. I have to balance taking the pressure off so that she learns the barn's an okay place to be, with having enough pressure so she's not allowed to do unacceptable things. Always a balance and I don't always find the right middle.

    1. totally agreed on the 'cause' factor. so often i think that's overlooked - ESPECIALLY in instances where the horse 'should know better.'

  22. A bit late to the party, but I've posted about this before. If you give Fiction an inch, he takes a mile. I can soften and release and relax ONLY after he does what I want. That being said, I don't aim for perfection in what I ask. For example: Poles. I just want him to go over them. No excuses. No bolting sideways. No bolting backwards. He must go over the poles. I don't care how he does it, so that is where I give him leeway. As he progresses in his ability to comprehend that the poles wont kill him, then I ask for him to slow down, relax, and carry himself properly over the poles.

    When it comes to something he should know already (downwards transition without leaning on my hands, for example), there are no excuses on his behalf. We will repeat it until he does it properly, and then he gets a break and a pat.

    I've been yelled at by every trainer I've ever had that I've been too soft with him and it's only been in this past year, after my fall, that I've started taking up the iron fist approach my current trainer employs. And it works - for Fiction at least.

    While every horse is different, I do think people personify them a bit too much. They are a work animal and should be expected to perform as such. Allowing for some disobedience, as I used to (especially when doing trot/canter sets up hills), can set you up for a dangerous situation. Horses are too big and too expensive to treat like pure pets imo, but that's just me haha :) I've found that my relationship with my horse improves the less I treat him like a dog and the more I treat him like a working animal.

    1. i think that's fair and whatever works for your horse works for your horse. tho i think you may have misunderstood my post.

      i'm not writing about being soft on the objective of what you want to do with the horse at any given moment. i am writing that while you focus on that one objective, everything else fades into the background. when you are working on the poles (your example), you work on the poles without being sidetracked into other unrelated arguments bc something else cropped up to distract from the poles. that's.... my point haha.

      another example - when i'm preparing to show my horse, i'm not going to get sidetracked into schooling him about bridling bc he was a spaz about it on the show grounds. that conversation is a distraction and will be saved for another day bc in this moment, i need him to focus on the task at hand: showing.

      so... i'm not saying i am cool with the horse being a shit about whatever that one singular thing i'm asking for is. and i'm not saying we shouldn't have expectations for how the horse does or does not perform according to our standards when we ask for this thing. i'm saying i need to be *clear* on that one singular objective. slight difference - but it's the backbone of this post.

    2. Sorry - I must have horrible reading comprehension haha. Thanks for the clarification!

    3. not at all - i read the other comment too, just not quick enough to respond - and think it all makes perfect sense. i haven't had to deal much personally with a horse like Fiction who will need that steady consistency but i can definitely see how approaches need to adapt by what each horse needs.

      it's all interesting to me tho. especially seeing how different riders prioritize different things. like things that one rider will let slide that another rider identifies as a major no no. i guess it all boils down to our individual experiences?

    4. Definitely. That is honestly what I love about the horse world (and what I hate haha). There are general underlying concepts that work, but the overall approach needs to be tailored to meet the individual and the horse. Unfortunately it can take so much trial and error to figure it out!

  23. I'm in it for the long game. Having a couple babies around made me realize very quickly that I have been spoiled by Ben. Granted we've had over 15 years together to hone his ground manners and saddle manners (is that even a term?!). So when one of the younger horses doesn't behave the way Ben does, I have to take a step back and remember that they don't have the years in with me yet.
    However, I do think starting from the ground up in important. I'm not on a fast track to show, so my approach will be different that others who will forgive some behaviors in order to work on performance issues. I plan to work with the new horses from the ground up because it's my opinion that if they behave on the ground, it will translate to the saddle (of course, this could differ for everyone!).
    I don't have an issue with letting a horse get away with something as long as it isn't dangerous in order to work on something else. Ben has never ground tied a day in his life, but I didn't really need him to (except for that one time...). It's okay if he's a PITA about some things because they don't bother me. But I do think it depends on the horse. Ben is allowed wiggle room because he knows what is expected of him. I cant give Valeria the same wiggle room because she will undoubtedly do something dangerous.
    I think it all depends on what your definition of the danger zone is. :)


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