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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

When life gives you lemons...

If you own performance horses for long enough, there is only one guarantee – at some point you will experience the disappointment of forced downtime, likely at a point where you thought you were finally accomplishing something.

There’s the obvious – learn from the situation, re-evaluate your management strategies yada yada yada.

However, there’s another gift that is given with the sentence of enforced downtime – the gift of starting over and starting slowly.

I’m naturally an optimistic person. I tend to make the best out of a bad situation. I can ALWAYS see the bright side and nothing gets me down for long. When Farley needed to be hand walked for 2 weeks for her minor bow a few years ago, I taught her to long line. Why handwalk a horse when I could teach it a skill? Later, when I asked her to tail up a hill, it went remarkably smoothly. So after the tye up, when the vet recommended working up to 20 minutes of walking, and then start riding at a walk, my ears perked up. I had noticed Farley “faking” contact lately in dressage – she would look like she was on the bit, but I didn’t have nearly enough horse in my hand. After ok’ing it with the vet (who thought the stretching of walking dressage would be GREAT rehab) I dedicated the 2 weeks of walking post-tyeup to re-establishing the concept of contact, long and low, and stretching over the bit.

By being forced to stay at a walk, I couldn’t use speed to my advantage. Because I was bareback, I could really feel when her back was up, whether I was pumping with my seat, or clinging/nagging with my leg. I had a limited time to work each day so I wasn’t tempted to drill a concept. In summary – it forced me to do the things I should have been doing all along.

After 2 weeks, with confirmation that her muscle enzymes were back to normal, we were cleared for normal work.

I found to my surprise that not only did I have a completely different horse in my hand for dressage, I had a better relationship too.

At my lesson last week – the first since the tye up – I got some jaw dropping trots. And canters. And down transitions. And halts. All because I took the opportunity to go back to the basics. The most suprising thing was I got all this from just doing quality work at a walk.

Here’s what I learned (and hopefully I remember them without having to go through another “incident”!)

  • If there’s an issue, make it really really really simple for 2 weeks. And easy. Really easy.
    Ride without stirrups for the first 5 minutes of any ride in the saddle. I found my hips and leg stayed relaxed once I picked up the stirrups. I had less trouble with pumping, clinging, and my knee moving up.
  • Relationship first. If you haven’t had some good rides in a while (and I was there with Farley…) and you think you need to take about 3 steps back, take 5 instead.
  • Be a cheerleader. I found out that Farley really likes the sound of me praising her with my voice. No, I won’t do it during a dressage test, but if I’m trying to let her know that YES THAT’S a GOOD girl for stretching over the bit and I can be encouraging while she’s figuring out, than that’s what I should do. It keeps me relaxed and happy too.
  • Do whatever it takes to take the frustration out of the rider/horse relationship. Ride with an ipod and sing out loud for 2 weeks. Ride bareback for two weeks. Go on pointless hacks where you saunter along for 20-30 minutes. Swear off using the whip as an aid until you can use it without feeling frustration.
  • Sometimes, when horses feel like a lot of work and motivation is low, it helps to ride every day for a short, relaxed ride, if you usually ride harder fewer days a week.

I think it says something about any relationship where it comes out of hardship even stronger. I feel like my relationship with Farley has never been better. She’s never looked better, never been stronger, and has never felt this good. Onward down the trail!


  1. I think one of the most difficult, and most important, part of training each animal is to learn how that individual likes to be praised . Some like verbal praise. Some like to hear their own name. Some don't give a rat's ass about verbal praise, and want some kind of physical praise--a pat or scratch. Some don't care about praise at all--they want a cookie.

    I know that common wisdom says that "the release is the praise", but in the middle of a steep learning curve, you can reinforce the idea of "you are on the right track, keep going" without using a release to indicate that "you have arrived, you've accomplished what I want entirely", if you know how your horse (or dog, or co-worker) likes to be praised.

    Good on ya for working on this with Farley!

  2. Glad things are going well for you. Happier still to know that Farley is coming through the tye-up. ~E.G.

  3. AareneX - totally agree. Being such a verbal praiser with horses is a bit foreign to me. I'm used to just using the release as a reward and most of my verbals are warnings because things are progressing in a naughty way......I got the idea when I was working on leash training Matt's dog and I realized how much positive praise I was doing and how the dog responded and decided to try it with Farley.

    Thanks for hte well wishes EG!


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