Thursday, February 16, 2017

discretion is the better part of valor

An interesting side effect of blogging about restarting an ottb is that I'm delving deeper and deeper into exploring my riding and training philosophies.

What do I believe about horse training? What are my experiences (limited tho they may be)? What is my desired outcome and how am I going to get there?

today's pics are all of phillip dutton, for no reason other than i admire him. and upper level xc pics are badass.
the above is from Fair Hill 3* in 2015
This isn't necessarily a new quality in me haha - I've maybe always tended to over think, over analyze or over conceptualize what could (should?) be fairly straight forward topics. But I kinda enjoy dwelling on the subject... and apparently I enjoy writing it out too. Perhaps bc the act of writing forces me to think more clearly or be more organized in the thought process? Do you ever feel that way too??

Anyway. Lately I've been thinking about quotes from various trainers over the years. One, from Dan"If what you are doing isn't working, slow down."

 2016 Rolex 4* 
Another, paraphrased from Stacy Westfall (whom I've never met but enjoy following): 'Everything in horse training can be broken down into smaller and smaller steps.' And, "Understanding is the foundation for communication."

And local horsemanship pro Jim's words often echo in my head: 'Whenever you ask the horse for anything, know exactly what you want. And do not move the goal posts midstream.'

Back to the earlier questions, what is my desired outcome? Simple, it's twofold: I want to event Charlie. And I want to have ALL of the fun while doing so. How am I going to get there? Well. One step at a time. Basically, my motto has been 'go slow to go fast.'

2016 Rolex 4* stadium 
The visual metaphor I keep returning to is building a house. First, we have to identify the site, then prepare it for the foundation. Next, the foundation itself is laid - and finally the house is built atop it all. The whole picture is brought up to spec with refinements like electricity and running water. And maybe finished with landscaping and tasteful interior design.

But for fuck's sake. There is no mother fucking sense in hanging a picture over the giant goddamn crack in your wall bc your shoddily-laid foundation shifted beneath your feet. And that sure as shit ain't the house's fault either. If you're impatient about not being able to choose paint colors or buy furniture yet.... maybe an undeveloped plot of land isn't for you.

2016 Great Meadow Nations Cup 3* .... honestly not 100% this is pdutty... but whatever, it's a cool pic anyway lol
Does that sound judgy? Sorry.... kinda haha. Really tho, I'm serious. Everything I do with Charlie right now is about laying the foundation for what I hope to be able to do tomorrow. Next week. Next month. You get the picture. But Charlie gets a say in the speed of this process. And so far, the biggest thing I'm learning from him is when to slow down, back up, lower the bar, or break a question down into its component pieces.

Bc let's be real, the horse can't walk and chew gum at the same time lol, and I just have to meet him at his level. He probably needs a little more time than the average ottb, and that's totally fine.

2016 Great Meadow Nations Cup 3*
The last thing I want to do is destroy his confidence by pushing him too far when he's not ready. Because remember - when Charlie first came to me, he could not handle pressure. He'd grow upset and defensive if he didn't understand or if he thought he was in trouble.

In effect, the horse did not know that it's ok to be wrong, that he wouldn't be punished for mistakes. And he therefore did not trust situations when he was confused or didn't understand. He lacked confidence. And it drives me crazy when I hear this type of behavior described as 'naughty' bc that's just not fair to the horse.

Nine times out of 10, if the horse doesn't give the right answer it's because they either don't understand what you want or bc they're afraid they'll be wrong or get in trouble or be hurt.

2016 Plantation 3*
Horses don't choose to be bad. Sure, some might test limits, or evade and resist questions, but that still boils down to clarity in communication. And to be clear - I'm talking about the green horse here. The horse still working on 'go' and 'whoa' and 'turn.' Things admittedly get fuzzier as training grows increasingly complex... but I'd argue that the fundamentals are the same.

For Charlie, I've had to purposefully show him that it's ok to be wrong. That he can give the wrong answer, receive a correction in proportion to the mistake, and then be rewarded upon getting it right. As Janet Foy said, "Ask the horse a question. See what answer he gives then either reward or ask again." Nbd, and no dwelling on the mistakes.

Once Charlie learned that he always has a place he can go - that he's always safe so long as he's trying, he's become more willing, more interested in figuring out what I'm saying, what I'm asking. He's grown curious. He volunteers. He wants to participate. And it's so much more fun!!!

2016 Plantation 2*
So there are two main mantras that have been working well for me, personally, lately in my green horse journey, and that I basically repeat to myself over and over again haha:

-     I would ALWAYS prefer to finish a ride wishing I had gone a little farther, done a little more, vs. the alternative of regretting not quitting while I was ahead.

and,

-    However disciplined I expect Charlie to be, I need to hold myself to a standard 10x as strict.


2016 Plantation 3*
It's a fairly conservative philosophy... There's not a lot of risk taking and maybe it's not really very exciting. But so far it's working out pretty ok for us. And I'm banking on saving up all that excitement for the rush and thrill of galloping across country on a safe, reliable horse* who trusts me as much as I trust him.

What about you - do you find yourself agreeing with any of the above? Disagreeing? Maybe you're more comfortable with pushing the envelope and testing a horse's limits earlier on? Or maybe you think I've got it totally backasswards, and your experiences with green horses have led you to entirely different conclusions?

Surely I can't be the only one who spends way too much time thinking about this stuff haha (or am I?) - do you have little rules or guidelines that you always fall back on like my two above?

Or maybe you wish I'd shut up already about this meaningless navel-gazing philosophical drivel and just post more pix of Charlie's cute face plz?? lol....


(*provided he can stay on his goddamn feet!)

34 comments:

  1. I spend far too much time thinking! But I do agree with everything you wrote.
    I also think that sometimes people think stop if the horse is resisting or not liking things.

    I think I made a mistake early with Carmen- as she got tense in our ride I got softer and softer and backed off. I think that taught her two things: one that I wasn't there for her when she was nervous and two that everything was optional. Now that I'm on track with her things were much better.

    For example: she has learned that when I put on one leg (usually the inside) it means bend. Which is great. Except that when she was worried about something (like birds in a tree) there was no response. Since I know she knows this cue it became about teaching her that 'yes you bend even if you are worried'. Sometimes that meant I had to give a kick - which pissed her off but then she bent so it's all good.
    Not sure if I'm making sense here and maybe I'll do a post on this too but it like speech therapy - once a goal is established in one context you can either go to a more a difficult goal or work on the same goal in a different context but you can't do both.

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    1. I definitely know what you mean about accidentally teaching the horse the wrong thing (see: Charlie's "dinosaur stuck in tar pit" lol). Just gotta keep reminding myself that they learn in the release, and can learn the wrong thing as easily as they learn the right thing!

      Either way I would love reading your post on the subject!

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  2. Basically this. There was a time my first response to Pig's resistance was that he was "being bad", but I've come to realize most of the time that bad behavior stems from either a lack of understanding or a lack of confidence. Either way, the onus is on me to give more, explanation or confidence. Honestly this change has resulted in some of our biggest training leaps. I very much think we'd be stuck at first level still if I hadn't changed my thinking.

    Don't get me wrong! Sometimes the horse out thinks me or is a bit lazy, but I don't think of those things as being bad. That's a quick correction and back to normal. That's... part of training.

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  3. What Austen said. Totally and completely. And the magnitude of learning that lesson is evident very much when you compare and contrast Griffin and Q. I did wrong by Q and as a hot, sensitive, intelligent mare, she didn't hesitate to let me know how wrong I was. I'm still making up ground for what I trashed. Lesson learned though!! Look at Griffin - he's amazing, he tries for days, and the success we're finding as we dive into the new worlds of dressage and jumping is so fun. I hate that I had to be a total bitch and temporarily ruin my relationship with Q, but I did need to learn my lesson once and for all so that my future with all horses can be better. Go slow to go fast. Yes. Very much.

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  4. You are lucky in that you don't have to undo a lot of bad baggage that someone else laid on Charlie and can start laying that foundation on him while he is truly green (or maybe luck isn't the right word...you chose your horse very well). Charlie is lucky for the fact that his owner/rider is sensitive and intelligent and writes posts such as these. While things may seem slow to you now, I can already picture the two of you eating up the events with big smiles as you take that awesome foundation you are building and let it soar.

    As for me - I tend to be way too easy on Gem and let her get away with things she really shouldn't. Part of it is lack of my own training and part of it is my nature. It shows up though when she blows through me knowing full well what I want, but also knowing I won't correct her when she does it. Its all such a big learning curve.

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    1. Such a big learning curve and consistency is everything. For me, it helps to start on small things that I *know* I will be able to follow through on, so that the horse learns that actually I do mean what I say. This eventually translates to the bigger things too, even things that might otherwise make me nervous.

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  5. I think there were two things you hit on that are huge key things for me personally when it comes to training (or even just riding): 1) Horses don't set out intending to be bad. 2) A really good rider/trainer always knows when to quit.

    I think a lot of people start taking it personally when a horse displays behavior that they don't want, when really, it's being caused by the rider. It is a huge pet peeve of mine to see people blame a horse or call it an asshole or a jerk, because 99.9% of the time the fault is their own. Either the horse doesn't understand the question, they don't understand how you're asking the question, or there's a legit reason why they cannot give you what you want (ie pain issue, or the rider is doing something to block them). But if you don't have that kind of self-awareness (and omg many DON'T), you will always fail, because you will always be setting the horse up to fail. Then you end up with a horse that has no confidence in itself or in you (and then ta-da, you've created an "asshole").

    As far as knowing when to quit - how often do we see this? Sure, all horses need to learn how to handle pressure, but if you're pushing so much that you end up in a fight with your horse (or the horse melts down) on even a semi-regular basis, that's the rider. It goes against so many of our impulses as humans to be able to step back and say "you know, I think that's good for today", but if you've got a young or green or sensitive horse, it's a skill you HAVE to have.

    I could rant on this subject for a while obviously, but the short version is - totally agree with you. Horse training is VERY cerebral, and it's so important to be deliberate and thoughtful throughout the process. The speed of training should be 100% dependent on the horse.

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    1. Yea I hear ya. Knowing when to stop is SO HARD. Actually these days I'm more likely to end a little too early, which also isn't totally quite right. But it's all a balance.

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    1. I find horse training absolutely fascinating and have been studying more of a horsemanship perspective with the relationship being the most important aspect for a few years now. I've also been conquering fears of getting hurt while building those relationships because, one, horses are large prey animals and two, I am accident prone (seriously cursed, lol!). Now to stir up the mud in my head, I have now added 'be more bold' to the mix, and I am trying to find an new fit for this in my training. So now I am finding myself analyzing what I ask of a horse, the fairness and clarity of the questions, and then analyzing my own choices to see if I am being too cautious and pushing myself along with the horse for progression. I think to be a good trainer for the horse, we must also be our own mental best and this is one of my personal goals I have set for this year. But thinking and doing are two separat things so I have signed up for a mind/body sports psychology workshop and have been watching trainers I look up to such as Elisa Wallace (I find her confidence and ability to push the envelop with mustang training inspiring).

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    2. oh man, i definitely relate to worrying that i'm too cautious. maybe one of my biggest weaknesses as a rider is a failure to challenge my own self the way i ought to (see blog title haha). so i get that completely.

      a major part of my solution to that tho is in my chosen trainers and lesson program. i trust my trainers completely and will do whatever they tell me to do, even if i know for damn well sure i would *never* do the same thing on my own. it's a process tho haha.

      also elisa wallace is the bomb! i definitely try to emulate a lot of her process, as she's another one who really breaks things down into very small, systematic steps. from a distance, her process can look very fast (esp bc she can get her horses jumping higher faster) - but part of that is her boldness, like you say above, and the fact that she's got a great, proven method and is purposeful in laying the right foundation. inspiring!

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  7. I like the navel-gazing. There's a lot of important stuff, there, a lot of stuff I wish more people were better at. Heck, I wish I was better at it sometimes, too. I'm a big fan of the shoe-tying analogy (see here: http://whichchick.tumblr.com/post/80794382543/some-thoughts-on-teaching-crap-to-your ) and that's what I try to stick with, mentally, when I'm working with horses.

    I do more with super green horses than you do (stuff that comes with "lead, tie" as the skillset, stuff that has never seen or worn a saddle, may not let me pick up the feet, etc.) but it's the same deal as you're working on with Charlie. Slow and steady, the person's job is to make sure the horse understands his job and is comfortable doing it. The person should be very clear, very fair, consistent, and patient. My first rides do not look like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0q3OY1zBRM I would consider that a complete failure -- failure to teach, failure to attend to the horse's mental state, failure to go over all the material the horse needed to understand before I threw a leg over, etc.

    First rides should look like this: http://imgur.com/jPQun5q and like this: http://imgur.com/3vlGHmr Someone should not need to HOLD THE HORSE STILL FOR YOU when you get on. The horse should hold himself still for you when you get on, because that is a skill, a teachable skill, and a horse who understands to hold himself still for weight-bearing is a horse that is ready to be gotten upon. Note lack of helper, round pen in still pictures. We're in the yard of a low-income farm in Greater Rednecklandia. This (Tinnie, Bird's brother) is an indifferently-bred backyard arab, age 5, total cray-cray nutjob like all arabs, on his first "driveway" ride. (We leave the driveway once the steering works and the horse is reasonably stable for a 100 yard stretch of trotting. They start out wobbly like a drunk, and at that point they're not really ready to go places. Once they firm up and have their sea legs, you can go places on them.) He didn't buck. He never bucked, from ride 1 to ride 20. He didn't buck on "first ride outside in the big wide world" and he didn't buck on "first canter" and he didn't buck on "first trip away from home" and he didn't buck on "first trail ride with strangers". He did, after about a year under saddle, throw a little hop on a canter departure (more of a WHEE! than anything) which his rider promptly shut down. Not exciting. Slow and steady. Aim for "boring". Small, short lessons with clear goals. Allow time for the horse to understand what just happened. If you encounter trouble, look to the rider first, then look to the horse's fitness and ability. Horses don't generally do stuff wrong to piss you off. I know (what with the rope halter and everything) that I look like a horse petter who doesn't ride their critters, but I swear, all the critters I start under saddle wind up being riding horses out in the big, wide world inside of sixty days. We leave the round pen and ride in the open, by ourselves, at three gaits. (We don't have a round pen, actually, but you know what I mean. I'm not in the round pen Parelli'ing my way to nirvana or whatever. I actually ride the horses. For real.)

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    1. Yup - "aim for boring" - I like it!! I'll save the excitement for the stuff that's actually supposed to be exciting (like galloping xc!!!!!)

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  8. So many good thoughts here! And yes, I like to ponder at great length about these things as well. When I learned to ride, I was taught (and taught to others! yikes!) that the rider had to "make" the horse Do The Thing, win the battle, show the horse who's boss, etc. Riding wasn't a conversation or a matter of teaching the horse what I wanted, it was a dictatorship. Not surprisingly, I was a terrible rider and trainer. Thankfully my understanding and philosophy has changed a lot since then, and I believe in the same type of training you do: Asking the horse simple questions in such a way that he can understand what the desired response is, and letting him know when he's got the right answer. While, sure, horses do sometimes come with a lot of emotional baggage or resistance to work for whatever reason (ahem, Dino), they don't 'decide' to be defiant. They just react to what they experience, and it's our responsibility to make the experience of riding and training a positive, interesting one for them. Having to un-do a LOT of baggage with my pony has taught me that trying to make him do anything is not ever the right way to do it! Training has to be a conversation, and one full of empathy for the horse.

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    1. Good points - cases like Dino (and in some respects, Charlie) show that horses can learn the wrong things. Resistant behavior can be reinforced unintentionally if we are not careful and then the problem is harder to fix... I like what you say about it still boiling down to empathy tho!!!

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  9. My husband was in the Army National Guard when we met, and they have a saying that I absolutely love: "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast." It's so, so applicable to just about anything in life, but especially working with and training horses!

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  10. While I don't/probably would never consider myself a "trainer", I understand and acknowledge the fact that every time I interact with my horse, it is a training moment. In contrast to clean-slate Charlie, Quest came to me with a muddled history and 4+ owners. It wasn't ideal but after spending 2.5ish years with her, I know for a fact I got stupidly lucky with her. While she did come with her issues, the biggest being confidence and building her trust in me as a leader, they could be addressed with basic horse sense and observation.

    My personal philosophy (perhaps limited due to experience) has been something like this: Set the bar high but allow time needed to meet realistic expectations. The training is to equip them with the right tools for a discipline (be it a pasture puff or 4* eventer) and set them up with every opportunity to succeed in a harmonious partnership. Allow for mistakes, time the correction well, and move on. Rewards and release should be big and generous.

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    1. not sure charlie qualifies as a clean slate after 4 intense years in a racing career. there's a lot of baggage associated with that. but he's certainly green for my purposes!

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  11. I really enjoy when you do these posts because it slows me down and makes me think about what am I doing deliberately with my training. It's my first time with a "greener than grass" horse and I'm amazed every single day on the things that she picks up and how quickly she learns. Right now our number one goal and priority is to get healthy. Second goal is to put on weight. But we're still putting her under saddle to keep her moving and she is blowing me away. One of the things I've done - as a result of reading your blog - is making sure I've been asking her questions clearly and very quietly at first. She listens very closely and I love the results. So this is a long-winded way of saying THANK YOU and keep posting these types of blog entries!

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    1. aw thanks - i'm so glad to hear these posts have been useful for you! i spend so much time wrestling my own thoughts haha but it's definitely a useful exercise for me. glad things are going well with the new girl!

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  12. Elizabeth Gilbert said this to Krista Tippett in an interview recently;

    MS. GILBERT: You know? And I think that’s really important because here is one of the grand misconceptions about creativity. And when people dream of quitting their boring job so that they can have a creative life, one of the risks of great disappointment is the realization that, “Oh, this is also a boring job a lot of the time.” [laughs] It’s certainly tedious. I mean, it’s a boring job I would rather do than any other boring job. It’s the most interesting boring job I’ve ever had, but…

    MS. TIPPETT: But every job has boring in it, right?

    MS. GILBERT: Yes, yes. I mean, I have a theory that I’m just growing, and I haven’t really put a roof on it, but I’ll throw it out there, which is that everything that is interesting is 90 percent boring.

    MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. That’s right.

    MS. GILBERT: And we are sort of in a culture that’s addicted to the good part, right? The exciting part, the fun part, the reward. But every single thing that I think is fascinating is mostly boring. So — marriage. I mean, good Lord, can there be anything more fascinating than joining two souls together in union and to spend a life entwined? Ninety percent boring.

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  13. The older I get, the more I'm adopting a "less is more" strategy, especially with C and the happier I am with my results.

    And the less shits I give about what everyone else is doing.

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  14. I love this post. LOVE IT. I love how cerebral good horse training can really get.

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  15. First I have to say that I pretty much love everything you just said. I think a big note or takeaway for everyone is that while we aren't all professionals if you ride a green horse you are training it. If you have a smart horse like I do it's just as easy to teach them the wrong thing (if not easier) than it is to teach them the right things.

    Amanda touched on this too but it is my belief that horses are not naturally inclined to be naughty. They aren't typically malicious by nature and don't have vengeful thoughts. I know that if Annie resists something it is because a) that shits hard or b) she doesn't understand what I want. It is so so so important to know when to stop with a young horse.

    I know that there are plenty of people that worn agree with how I do things or the choices I make. They might think I'm going too fast or the other end of the spectrum with people that don't get why I do things like take her to gallop on the beach, ride bare back, go on hunter paces etc etc but they don't ride her every day. I do the things I do to keep us both happy and well rounded. You can't be nose to the grind all the time! Sorry for the ramble.

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  16. "However disciplined I expect Charlie to be, I need to hold myself to a standard 10x as strict."

    Yes, yes, yes, yes times a million.

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    1. that's definitely a biggie for me. how the heck is the green horse supposed to be perfect when i'm still making loads of mistakes?

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  17. I love everything about this post. A solid foundation is so so so important. Kudos to you for listening to Charlie's speed of learning!

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  18. I also adore this. And I love the house analogy. I spent a lot of time building the framework for one wall so I could put up curtains only to realize, now that I'm working on the rest of the foundation, that those curtains are hideous and I wish I'd never put that wall there to begin with.

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    1. oh man, yea i know that feeling too!!!

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  19. I've been thinking about this stuff super hard too. I have a yearling that is my "responsibility". I keep trying to think what my philosophies will be, and if I feel qualified or am I determined enough to do right by him. I really want to be, but I know I'm going to find out this year. I was super thankful that I had handled him as much as I did prior to breaking my foot. I went to feed dinner and poor dude came in from the field with wire (dunno where it came from!) wrapped around his hind fetlock. I internally screamed, took a deep breath, and approached the situation like I would have Riesling. He was a little interested to see me coming in his paddock and wasn't sure why I wanted to hang out behind him, but luckily he trusted me enough I was quickly and safely able to get it free from him. I gave him a pat afterwords and it was nbd. Seriously all the little time and little steps you take with horses are so important.

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  20. I'm totally guilty of moving the goalposts in both directions. Oh, you're doing this one thing I really wanted you to do, lets see if we can do the next thing. Bam. Bad outcome.

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  21. Yes! I am the same way. I make those quotes like my mantras. They seem to pop up in my head when I need to remember them. That is the good part of dwelling and thinking on them...and writing about them!

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