Sunday, January 26, 2014

Christmas Surprise Horse Update

K and Tempest - as he is now known - have been much on their own since Christmas Eve. I've been incredibly busy working two jobs 6 - 7 days a week. Its all I can do to find time for my own horses these days, let alone helping the two of them out as they begin their journey.

I purchased the book that helped me begin my pursuits with Griffin, The Modern Horseman's Countdown to Broke. It provides 33 steps with basic groundwork skills that lead to introductory riding exercises to introduce a new horse to work under saddle. Its simple and basic without all of the sillyness that can often accompany some of the natural horsemanship work. That book, coupled with guidance from Dee, Jeanna, and another trainer in our area, really helped me to work through things with Griffin.

I gave the book to K and left her with instructions to work through the first several steps over the next month with Tempest. I told her we'd re-assess at that point to see about riding. My goal was for them to spend enough time together working with those concepts that they would be able to begin to form a relationship with one another along with some crucial groundwork.

Tempest knows everything required in the first few lessons (how to lunge, how to stay away from the trainer at the center of the round pen, how to perform a circle to the inside, how to transition between gaits). More than anything, I hoped that this book would help K to learn how to get Tempest to respond. The book is good about noting "red lights" and "green lights" for moving forward for both the person and the horse.

 Once brushed out, K took Tempest into the indoor round pen. I had told her that I would observe intermittently as I trimmed Griffin's feet. I tend to take a short break between each foot to give Griffin and I both a moment of recess. It was perfect for watching K without giving me time to try to micromanage and step in where I really don't need to. I'm a worrier and over-eager to help when I shouldn't. This situation kept me at bay in the best way possible.

K started by walking Tempest around the round pen with the lead rope. K would stop walking and Tempest would stop with her...a little too far forward and in her box than what I'd ever allow my horses, but he wasn't being pushy about it and this was what she was happy with at this point in time, so I just kept my mouth shut. I've shared my view on this behavior with her numerous times, I don't want to force the subject any more. I was pleased to see that she did back him up a few times when he was even more forward than usual. The foundation is there.

I was very pleased to see that K had really done her homework with Tempest in the realm of practicing the round pen exercises I'd suggested as she transitioned from just leading him around the round pen into liberty work. She had him staying away from her, changing directions with inside turns, and changing gait between a walk and a trot. She'd begun trying to get him to approach at her bidding, but he was very hesitant about it. She was offering a peppermint if he'd walk to the center with her.

This was the point where I did step in a moment. I pointed out to her that her body posture when she was asking for this was still very "aggressive". She had her shoulders squared toward him in the exact same way as when she was asking him to move his feet around her. He was confused because he knows this posture to mean "stay out there; move your feet". I suggested that she turn her body into a more neutral/passive posture, perhaps adding a tiny bow to it when she wanted him to approach. (The way I work with my two - Griffin in particular - is that if I turn to the side, bow a little, and cock one of my feet onto a toe that they should approach and come in. If I merely turn to the side, and unsquare my shoulders I'm just asking for a halt, not permission to approach. I know many caution ever "allowing" a horse into your space, but this is something that has worked very well for me. I've even been able to use it in the field when my horses decide to play games about coming in and had them respond to it, approaching me and allowing me to halter them.)

K nodded assent to my suggestion. I told her then that I was really impressed with the work she'd done over the past month-ish. I could see real improvement and a definite relationship between human and horse. They'd really accomplished a lot from the last time I'd seen them together.

I told K that I thought she could definitely ride her horse for the first time that day. But before we did that, as even further precaution (even though my gut was telling me that this was going to be 100% okay because this horse truly, truly, truly has one of the sweetest demeanors I've witnessed in awhile), I wanted her to work him at a trot with lots of changes in direction for 15 minutes. Really make him work and move his feet. If he sweated a little bit, great!

I finished Griffin's feet while she did this. There was a little bit of an issue with Tempest being lazy as she started the exercise. I told her to not be afraid to reach out with the lunge whip and give him a tap or a pop with the end of it. He was being lazy because he knew she wasn't going to touch him. I promised her that a flick of the line on his rump wouldn't hurt him. It would merely enforce to him that yes, K could indeed reach out and get him if he didn't listen. I told her that if she just did it once that she'd likely not have to repeat it. He is a very smart horse and he'd know how to prevent that experience from happening again. And that is just what happened. One flick and he sped up and got a lot more focused on her.

At the end of 15 minutes, K brought Tempest out and her dad and I helped to tack him up.

I again had her send him around the pen for a few circuits with all of the tack on, explaining to her that it was important to do this because he might not be okay at first with the tack. If he was going to be startled about it it would be best for him to work it out without her riding.

Tempest jogged around the pen lackadaisically without a care in the world about the little saddle and the hackamore.

I helped K fit a helmet to her head, grabbed the stepstool from her dad, check the girth one last time, and held Tempest as she mounted him. Once both her feet were in the stirrups and her hands on the reins, I looked at her, noted the huge grin she was trying to suppress and the sparkle of excitement in her eyes and said, "You ready?" A nod. "Okay!" And I dropped my contact with the reins. "Put him on the wall at a walk."

And so, K was riding her horse for the first time.

She did a few circuits around the inside round pen for a few minutes while I exited and finished tacking up Griffin.

Once Griffin was good to go, I gave her dad options to lead her and Tempest out to the outdoor pen, to have her dismount and lead, or to let her follow Griffin and I. He chose to lead her.

I grabbed Q and Griffin and led them with K on Tempest, led by her dad following.

I tied Q nearby and entered the outdoor round pen with Griffin and K and Tempest. Once all inside, I instructed K to put Tempest on the wall again at a walk while I mounted the little grey horse.

While I was splitting my attention between Griffin and K, I was always aware of how K and Tempest were positioned within the ring. I was able to observe her body movements, posture, and requests of Tempest. I was also watchful of his responses to her requests.

He's such a sweet, sweet boy. He's got a really great foundation under saddle coupled with the kindest demeanor. He tried so, so hard to understand what she was asking. Unfortunately, K is very green. They're both green. Its not ideal. But it is what it is and its going to be a really good learning experience for K. I have a couple other close friends who are my age who came about their first horses in the same way. I'm happy to report that both of those stories have terrifically happy endings, too.

In a matter of seconds, Tempest wasn't on the rail. K tried and tried to keep him there. I explained how she needed to keep her inside leg on to push him over and apply a bit of pressure to that outside rein, too, if her leg aids weren't enough. She tried and tried. There was improvement, but not perfection.

She asked if she could trot him. I acquiesced. It was her first time on HER horse, of course she wanted to trot! I could empathize with that. It was a very exciting day! I didn't want to lesson and lecture too much. I wanted to let her have fun, too.

And so they trotted. And her smile grew again. And then faded when Tempest wouldn't remain on the rail. He kept trending toward the center. He's no dummy. He knows that middle of the ring means stop!

K's smile was more and more intermittent. I racked my brain for the best way to approach this situation. I was so worried her first ride wasn't what she thought it would be. And it probably wasn't. This wasn't going to be the easiest thing, green and green. So I brought Griffin to the middle and stood him there; I began breaking concepts down as best I could, instructing from horseback, demonstrating things with Griffin as I explained them to her.

I broke down what the jargon meant: inside leg, outside leg, inside rein, outside rein, pressure, release. She applied these concepts as I explained them. They were getting better. But every time she'd halt him he'd start backing up. He's most excellent at backing! I cautioned her to not let him do this. If she did it would form a nasty habit that wouldn't be fun to deal with later. Her dad agreed.

And so she tried to get him to stop. There were a couple successes, but with those successes there were many botched attempts. I could see her frustration growing.

It isn't easy learning all of these things! I remember being that young girl just starting lessons. In my mind everything was supposed to be rainbows and unicorns. It was supposed to be effortless and beautiful. A perfect partnership. But it wasn't. It was hard. I couldn't keep my heels down. I couldn't keep my eyes up. I didn't cue things perfectly. I was afraid to try other things. It was HARD.

Its because of this that I empathize so much with K. I really, really felt for her as I saw her frustration growing. So when Tempest wandered away from the rail again, I asked her to dismount. I noted to her how I hadn't even ridden her horse yet. How I'd had my friend Mike ride him when we "tested" him out. I noted to her that I could see her getting a bit frustrated, and maybe watching me demonstrate some concepts as I narrated them would help. I also noted that maybe I could find out why Tempest was being weird about being on the wall and backing up. I really hoped he'd act out a little with me so she could see that it happens to everyone.

And so I hauled myself up on this horse who is a hand-and-a-quarter taller than both of mine. It'd been awhile since I'd been so high up! Haha.

With a cluck and a tiny squeeze, he walked off toward the rail. I applied only the tiniest pressure with my inside leg for a few moments and released. He remained on the rail the whole time thereafter. I showed K how I would drive down with my seat, sitting deeper, pushing my legs ever-so-slightly forward to cue a halt. Tempest halted. I gave a cluck and a tiny squeeze, explaining myself and my actions to K. Tempest struck out at a walk again. I noted that with the slightest of flicks from my fingers, I could apply pressure to the hackamore coupled with an aid from my inside leg to encourage a turn to the inside. Tempest rounded and turned. Once back on the wall, I noted how to cue him into a trot with yet another tiny squeeze. Tempest trotted. I noted the halt cue again and sat deeply. Tempest halted. I cued with my legs and slight pressure on the hack for him to back, explaining all of this to K as I did. He backed.

He's incredibly responsive to everything. He's nearly as sensitive as Q about things! I was so surprised.

I dismounted and further explained his sensitivity to K. I compared it with how Q is. I contrasted their personalities with this shared trait of sensitivity. I waxed and waned a little about how this journey she and Tempest were on together wasn't going to be easy, but it would be worth it. She was lucky to have such a kind-hearted horse to help her learn. I shared that in all honesty, it would be best for her to work on everything at the walk for awhile. I noted how my dressage work with Q is going well at the walk, then I get eager about wanting to trot and it falls apart. I tried to use myself as an example for going slow and mastering things before moving forward. I'm not perfect at it, but when I practice it, it really makes a difference. I lamented at the lack of trainers to give lessons in the area. I shared my worry that I wasn't going to be enough to help her - after all, I had a multitude of instructors through the years, none of whom teach any more. I told her I would do my very, very best to help her though. This journey in teaching is new to me, but I would do my best to offer everything I can.

I gave K a leg up onto Tempest again and they worked some more at the walk, staying on the rail and halting without backing. The brief break really helped them both. Success after success. I congratulated her on each of them.

We ended there, on a good note, and called it a day. I had to meet Jen and we'd been at it for nearly 2 hours by this point. (No, not 2-straight hours of work, but 2-straight hours of being at the barn with the horses.)

I congratulated K multiple times on how well she'd done today. I noted again how it wouldn't be easy, but I knew she could do it. She can. And she will. And she's got a really sweet horse to work with.

I don't know when our next session will be. I've been thinking a lot about what kinds of things I can say and do to help her for the next time. What kind of homework I can give her to focus on for when we work together again. Busy schedules on both our parts don't lend well to constant, steady forward progression. But this is what we've been given, so we'll make the best of it!

I sent K a text later in the day with further congratulations coupled with the photos of her riding. It wasn't the most perfect of first rides, but it was definitely a good one. We can only build from here!

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