Monday, June 18, 2018

training for pressure

This past week was spent mostly picking up the pieces after our disappointing attempt at Plantation's starter trial.

Like I wrote last week, obviously the first step in this process is a comprehensive wellness check for Charlie, with everything on the table. I've already made some changes here and Charlie's had a few appointments with the professional practitioners who know him best. Probably more to come on that later, too.

he's honestly been seeming like a happy camper lately!
This all doesn't happen in a vacuum tho. And the reality is that we are dealing with some training issues, regardless of whatever comes up in checking out Charlie's general health. Those training issues need to be addressed from the saddle, and there's no time like the present!

I gave myself a day off on Monday first, tho. Mostly to take a little time to sort out my thoughts and feelings. Give myself some pep talks. I wanted to really understand what happened and why, and also wanted to be crystal clear in my own mind about how to move forward. What were my objectives, my expectations? And was I prepared to get into the saddle for this first diagnostic ride confident that I wouldn't take it personally or get upset if it didn't go well?

Everyone knows that famous quote saying the only emotions that belong in the saddle are patience and a sense of humor. That might make perfect logical sense printed on a poster hanging on the office wall, but it isn't objectively true for me. It isn't really my reality.

loves his adorably illustrated sugar cube packets that my grandparents brought back from france actual years ago lol....
Riding brings out a LOT of different emotional responses from me. Most of them pretty freakin positive. But you can't really get those extreme highs without a couple lows thrown in there too. I'm human. I get frustrated, demoralized, angry. None of these feelings are super effective in horse training tho, it's true. But they happen. So it's up to me to make sure I'm emotionally prepared before I get into the saddle to keep myself centered.

I tend to hang on to things, to dwell. The memory of Plantation still stings, and will likely continue to do so until I can replace it with a newer, fresher, happier memory. For Charlie tho? Plantation might as well have not ever even happened. He's over it lol. Wayyyy past it.

If I went into our first ride back feeling angry or upset about how things went down at Plantation, Charlie's would just get confused and upset too, and it would be entirely counterproductive.

So these are the little pep talks I have with myself.

he got to see his favorite massage therapist this week too! she's been treating him for over a year now and knows his body better than just about anyone else. it's so funny bc he was so surly and defensive when he first met her, but now he just freakin adores her and loves his sessions
I also pulled out some different training aids: switched my normal crop for a dressage whip, and had a pair of spurs looped through my belt in case I felt like they were needed.

My thought here being: it's likely that spurs will become a regular part of our gear again. Even if I don't wear them for every schooling ride, it's not likely that I'm gonna leave the start gate without them again for the foreseeable future.

HOWEVER. Given the little pep talks I had to have with myself, and given that I really had no idea how Charlie would be for our first ride back (would he be sound? sore? sour? would I be able to keep my composure?), it seemed prudent to give myself a little bit of a buffer zone in case Charlie felt like a sulky sour mess and I got upset.

her general findings were that he's doing pretty well, but might be due for some chiro too
Turned out tho, he felt good. Better than good - actually, he felt freakin fantastic.

I still put a LOT of pressure on him during that ride tho. Because I really wanted to see. Wanted to push - give him an opening to say "No!" for whatever reason. Wanted to find out if there was a limit he was setting for what he would or would not take.

Esp in the moments following breaks, when he would maybe wonder if we would be done and then be reluctant to start going again. I put a lot of pressure on those moments to see how he would react.

And wouldn't ya know it, Charlie just up and took it. Carried on. Was a good boy.

That alone was enough to reassure me that physically, the horse is overall probably fine. Again - none of this precludes continuing our "comprehensive wellness check" but it's still giving me a lot of information about whether Charlie actually physically feels like he can't go forward.

So we'll see. I'm making some tack adjustments, evaluating other aspects of Charlie's day to day care, scheduling appointments.

got to sniff his favorite puppy too
Nothing is ruled out (is that ever even possible with horses anyway?) but again our day at Plantation looks increasingly more like the confluence of many small issues that snowballed into one giant catastrophe of a performance. And the vast majority of those issues have more to do with me and my approach to riding Charlie than anything else.

As far as I can tell, it basically boils down to pressure. Charlie has always been a somewhat pressure-averse horse. Since the very beginning of his time with me.

We hit a low point during our first winter together when I basically slammed into the wall of Charlie's sticky stuck resistance in a schooling ride, and was not able to work through it. The ride ended without resolution, and I felt at a complete loss for what to do and worried I was in WAY over my head.

I hauled Charlie to OF the next day (this was before we boarded here) for a much-needed lesson with trainer P. And she reinforced the lesson that I'm now facing with Charlie again: Yes, it is of critical importance that I'm fair to him and that he's physically able to do what I ask of him.

Simultaneously, however, I have to give him black and white guidelines on what's considered acceptable behavior and what is not. And as of that day, with trainer P holding my own toes to the fire, Charlie's refusal to move forward officially was deemed unacceptable. In no uncertain terms.

riley however was skeptical of all the pony attention
And I had to be vigilant about this. Every ride. Every step. If I failed to correct even the slightest indiscretion - Charlie sucking back when I put my leg on, or even just kinda ignoring me - Charlie would escalate to full on refusing to move.

At first, when I started correcting the small stuff we'd end up having our throw-down dinosaur-stuck-in-tar-pit tantrums right away, instead of slowly building up to the eruption over the course of a ride. The fights came faster and sooner. and more often. But they also became shorter and less intense. Instead of Charlie completely refusing to move and threatening to go up - he'd maybe just break gait for a couple steps before begrudgingly going forward again.

And eventually those moments of attitude faded to nothing more than a brief moment of pinned ears with a sky-high brontosaurus neck and head before carrying on as normal.

So here's where I made my mistake. Over time, as things continued to go so well, and as Charlie proved himself again and again to be SUCH A GOOD BOY OMG HOW DID I GET SO LUCKY, I kinda forgot about that vigilance. Kinda forgot that I had to stay on guard for those small little indiscretions lest I risk Charlie escalating again.

and there was a lot of pony attention haha
This was compounded by Charlie's seemingly never ending string of dings. When you're constantly in the cycle of "bringing the horse back into work," it never really feels like the right time to have it out, to end up in a big fight, or risk pushing him if maybe it really was a physical thing bugging him.

Plus I wanted so badly for him to stay happy, to stay eager, to keep being a good boy. I didn't want him to be sour or dull, and was maybe afraid to push anywhere near the direction of those earliest tar pit days.

What I forgot was: things didn't become consistently good with him until we were past that. Charlie didn't really relax and settle into his work until he was pretty clear that there weren't other alternatives - or at least not any alternatives that were easier for him.

Charlie became a happier, easier riding horse when I was the most diligent about clear rules, with consistent black and white treatment of what was acceptable and what was not. And in slipping up in that regard, in becoming more lackadaisical, it became easier for Charlie to explore other options. To feel like, maybe if he didn't really wanna, then he didn't really havta.

these ponies all live in different fields but have all become such good friends after being lesson mates for the past couple years lol
Instead of being able to have a quick clear discussion about "Yes we go forward now plz" in warm up at Plantation, the issue sorta simmered and steamed throughout show jumping and well into our cross country course. Where we started fizzling out over jumps, with Charlie dealing with the subsequently very uncomfortable jumping efforts.

So that's basically my big grand hypothesis of our current training issues. With the answer being that it's mostly up to me to be more disciplined in the saddle. To be more clear, and more consistent. And to not shy away from the sticky moments but meet them head on.

Getting back to those first few rides last week after the show, I wanted to go back to the basics of Charlie's willingness to accept pressure.

naturally they're all obsessed with trainer P too haha - probably thanking her for trying to make us better riders
I see the ability to take pressure as being something like a muscular strength. The only way to improve it is by exercise -- but too much too fast will result in a strain or tear. Just like anything else in horse training, you can't just go from 0 to 60.

Which, "60" in this example being: cantering out the start box away from friends and perceived safety in an environment that looked a little spooky (ie: Plantation's unique wide open hillside layout).

That makes "0" something simpler, like a spurt forward from my leg. Even just at the walk. But that's gotta be the bare minimum, right? Like there can't be anything less than that.

So this is where our pressure training really starts: Charlie must move forward off my leg. Every time. No exceptions. In the arena, during the walk up the driveway. On the trails. Wandering around the field. Always.

What I'm remembering is that when I'm super consistent about this most fundamental building block in Charlie's training, everything else becomes much, much easier. Funny how that works....

So we'll see. Charlie honestly has felt pretty good this week. Hopefully I can keep it up!

32 comments:

  1. I can SOOOO relate to this post! Especially the chronic battle of "bringin a horse back into work" and trying to keep him mentally and physically happy all while ramping up the pressure. This weekend, Scout decided that he did not want to GO when I applied my leg aids in the ting, so rather then get frustrated there, I walked him to a nearby turnout field with a bog hill (oh, and he thought he was done and going back to the barn) and made him gallop up the hill a bunch of times. Guess who did some brilliant work in the ring post-gallop? Sounds like you and Charlie are really learning how to communicate with each other and it's awesome to read about!

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    1. it really can be such a challenge to find the right balance for these horses.... tho i guess things could always be worse haha!

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  2. I really like this post -- you're so thorough in examining the issue and coming up with a step by step action plan.

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    1. ha thanks... sometimes i'm pretty sure that i'm way over-thinking this stuff... but ya know, it makes me happy to figure out how to make things better

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  3. I think you're totally right! It's like the minute our horses are "good" we forget what it took to get them there. And we relax a bit (and don't wear spurs) and then realize maybe we shouldn't have done that. I am impressed with how thoughtfully and carefully you take your rides as well as how well you know your horse!

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    1. oh man it's so so so easy to forget how slow and painstaking some of this work can be. and to forget just how critical the basics are to success at higher levels. i guess it's just part of the process tho!

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  4. I love your thorough and thoughtful approach here. I think it's a relatable post for so many of us, too! You'll create a new, positive memory to offset Plantation in no time with your proactive training, I have no doubt. =) Charlie's a lucky guy.

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    1. thanks - this is definitely a common issue too haha. tho sometimes i wish charlie wouldn't make such a point of keepin me honest about it!!! lol....

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  5. I think it is great you are examining every aspect of this. One thing I am wondering, because it is something I would do myself, is can you go school at Plantation (sooner rather than later) with your instructor? Maybe that would help too. It wouldn't recreate the exact competition situation, but you would definitely boost your confidence by rejumping things there. Training horses is so hard, so know that I completely understand! :-)

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    1. honestly the catastrophe at plantation had nothing to do with it being plantation. the jumps were fine, the course was fine, charlie actually handled the hardest stuff we reached on course the best (like the one combination we did haha). the problem at plantation was going forward away from the crowd. that's not unique to the venue, and is something that has cropped up at literally every single show we've ever done. remember my "george morris critiques an eventer" joke post? that was about an early fence on course when i had trouble getting charlie getting going. same exact issue, just not quite so bad of a result. i'm actually pretty sure that if i had been able to get charlie to the turn around point of the course he would have clicked into gear and started going forward to the fences once he was headed back toward the main arenas. alas, the jump we got stuck on was the last jump going away before that turn. so close!!!

      anyway tho, plantation only has one open schooling day each year and it was last week and i couldn't find anybody to go with me. oh well.

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  6. Glad you were able to take the time to reflect and come to terms with what little issues turned into your big issue. I think we all fall into this. (I definitely do with May's steering). We are like, "This is an issue.Let's conquer it!" Then it gets better... then we're like, "Well, he's being pretty good. let's not fight about it." and eventually, they stop being "pretty good." Good for you for figuring it out and coming up with a new game plan!

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    1. it's such a never ending cycle with horses, isn't it? like.... apparently complacency is an insidious sneaky little beast!!

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  7. I missed your post on Plantation while I was traveling, so sorry to hear about your frustrations. But sounds like you have a good plan in action: rule out any physical causes, address holes in training, and also account for bad luck/an occasional off day. Two steps forward one step back is still progress. Sending you good thoughts this will soon just be a small blip in your rear view mirror!

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    1. thanks! there's always ups and downs with horses, it's inevitable. that's why it's nice to have this platform to really dig into everything and try to learn from each misstep!

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  8. Very thoughtful and so important for all of us to remember.

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    1. and yet so easy to forget lol.... isn't that always the way?

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  9. Ah yes, the whole "move forward immediately off the leg" thing. I nagged P so much with my legs, that he started tuning me out years ago, and it's taken a lot of work to get him reactive again.

    I wear spurs every ride, after being told I was once told it's better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them). And when jumping I now carry a crop with me at all times. I'm careful not to overuse either, so P wakes up if I have to go to either artificial aid.

    Sounds like you've got a good plan and some fantastic insights!

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    1. yea spurs are a great tool, tho i stopped wearing them with charlie for very real reasons too. it's great to have sorta generic cover-all ideas like "it's better to have them and not need them vs otherwise" etc but each horse is an individual and might need a little bit more of a tailored approach.

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  10. I SO feel you on this front. I so often slip with Murray and let him slide back to his preferred baseline of being a little behind the leg, a little bit off the aids. And that results in him being just generally crummy in general.

    Right now I'm doing a combination of enforcing the leg = forward aid, and giving him lots of praise for working under pressure. When he gets a little up and amped he moves and works so much better, but he's also mentally uncomfortable with that state.

    Add on to that all the biomechanics things I'm supposed to be doing all the time and I can hardly do anything other than ride in circles and change directions in my rides. I can't even think of something more complicated than that!

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    1. ugh so many things to remember all the time. why is riding so hard tho??? and it's like as soon as we figure one thing out, something else goes out the window lol...

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  11. I love this- it really resonates with me. I find that Carmen is pressure averse too (although her reaction is different). Like you I can let little things slide and then oops. Essentially I can't let her say a little 'no' or else the nos get bigger and more dramatic.

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    1. yep that's basically it in a nut shell. the part i have to remind myself tho is that it's actually less fair to the horse to allow those little "nos" bc it muddies the waters of what's expected of them. vs if they always get the same exact answer every single time, they're maybe honestly happier in the work.

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  12. We work so hard to keep our sensitive souls happy and comfortable, and sometimes we need to just give them a whack and a growl and just kick on through it! And make sure to give lots of cookies afterwards to make sure that we have been forgiven.

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    1. lol it's a lucky horse that never gets that occasional growl or kick in work! charlie surely wishes he knew how to get *that* job! really tho, just kicking on isn't the answer either - as there's a limit to what just plain old kicking and growling can accomplish too. i'd prefer to be more rigorous in the underlying training.

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  13. It's downright SPOOKY how similar Charlie and Dino turned out to be - you nailed it when you first got him and said that you thought they'd be so alike! I'm right there with you on getting lax because the horse is just getting back into work, or I'm just too darn TIRED to get into it with him over "leg means go", but you're so right in thinking that reinforcing that very basic of basics every step of the way is the key to a happy, willing partner who knows what the expectations are. You've got this, I know you guys will be rocking around XC again soon enough!

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    1. oh man, yea i think about that a lot haha - Dino and Charlie have a lot of commonalities lol. and yea, sometimes i'm just plain old tired. but. ya know. we keep working bc that's the only way to get there, right?

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  14. I can totally relate! And I'm with you on not being totally great about only having patience and a sense of humor in the saddle. Sometimes I'll get frustrated or embarrassed. I've realized that these aren't the worst emotions if I channel them the right way. So now when I get like that I just think "okay, now I'm really gonna ride this damn horse" and get extra vigilant (in the way you described, nothing mean, just VERY clear boundaries) and what do you know - I immediately have a horse who knows he is being ridden for realsies and behaves himself.

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    1. yea see that's awesome - i'm right there with you in saying "yes i have a broader range of emotions than what those motivational posters say i should feel, but i'm going to capitalize on them instead of feeling like a failure bc of them." i feel like so much of the "general wisdom" in horse training can be oversimplified or reduced beyond its usefulness until it's just kinda a gimmicky saying. for most adult amateurs, the real world of horse riding is way messier than that lol

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  15. Oh man. I'm sorry you're going through this. But I think being introspective about it all and thinking about how to go forward (ha, see what I did there) rather than dwell on the past is a great start. You guys will be back to killing it in no time!

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    1. lol going forward. yes haha. that is the key isn't it? lol... we'll figure it out!

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  16. So I finalllyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy got myself over to an account on here because I needed to comment on this.

    Everything about this is so spot on and I am dealing with the SAME DAMN THING on the other side of the world.

    Oh the pains of having a racehorse with no inclination to move!

    I hate working harder than I have to and it is so easy to get sucked in to covering up their flaws instead of pushing harder for the forward. Once you do, you wonder why you didn't do it sooner because everything else gets so much easier.

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    1. yay for finally getting an account!! and yea, ugh, it can be such a struggle sometimes with this whole thing. and it's so easy to get complacent or just feel like "eh i don't feel like going there today..." but. apparently it's gotta be 100% consistent all the time. go figure, horses need clear rules and expectations!

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