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Monday, January 27, 2014

Tig canters!

Saturday Aurora agreed to babysit me and Tig on an "appropriate mount" and I headed out to Oroville for a meet up.

This ride represented the end of 2 weeks of rides on Tig, and our first "big" trailering out ride.

After loading up gear I had 30 minutes to load Tig.  PLENTY of time.

And…she hopped in on the first try.  YES!!!!!!!!

Unloaded Tig and she immediately started to eat.
And eat. And eat. And not the nervous "grab a bite full and turn around" type eating - nose buried in the feed bag and can't be bothered to post for a picture eating!  Sounds like an endurance horse to me!

We tacked up (including a breast collar AND saddle bags) and hit the trail.

Tig was AMAZING. Early on the ride I managed to actually snap a few "ear pics".

Here's just a sampling of the things me and Tig did together on Saturday

1. passed by people walking their bikes (Tig was an angel)

2. Highway traffic that did not slow down while we were on the shoulder (Tig was a veteran)

3. Several asphalt crossing at intersections. (Tig stood there patiently)

4. Crazy dog pack yapping at us with their (mostly drunk?) owner crashing through the bushes yelling at them. (Tig stared in amusement).

5. Go down a steep bit of section that I was certain I was going to die on, and making plans to bail and just lead down, with Aurora looking on in amusement as Tig tucked her butt and scooted down like a pro. In general Tig is so well balanced going down the trail, I have to continually remind myself that's she's young not to let her trot down hill.  She reminds me of my partner's ride and tie horse who can canter so balanced downhill that if I closed my eyes I'm not sure I would know I was going down hill.

6. Take off a crinkly jacket and tie it around my waist.
Aurora asked me whether I sometimes forget I was riding Tig and treat her like Farley.

The answer is absolutely.  I don't ride a lot of young horses, so my body, seat, and hands are accustomed to doing a set of things to either ask for something, or to correct something.

I don't ride Tig like a baby….I ride her like a horse.

The result is that most of the time she behaves like a horse.

Sometimes when I ask her to stop jigging, or lower her head, or move to the other side of the trail, she DOESN'T respond like a horse - and so I take a moment to be extra patient and explain it, and then we move on.

I think as a result, she responds by mostly behaving like a horse.

This sort of "ask-explain-move on" sort of philosophy is different from the philosophy I was taught and used when I was riding youngsters many years ago. Back then I had a good seat and could read a horse fairly well, but I lacked the "refined" riding communication skills that two years of intensive dressage training, and thousands of miles on a broke horse.

Back then I what could have been described as a "explain-drill-next step" approach.  The horse and I did the same things over and over until they did it near perfect and then we stopped and moved on to the next thing.  Each "obstacle" was trained, practiced, and drilled. Crossing water, mounting, staying in gait until I absolutely cued something else. Crossing poles, side passing, opening gaits.

Nowadays I do very little drill or repetition.  We move down the trail, I ask and she either responds or not. If she doesn't I explain what I want, she then does it correctly and we move on.  No repeating until it's perfect, or to prove a point.  If we ride for long enough, the opportunity for the same lesson will come up again and again I'll ask, and again she'll have the option to respond, or I'll re-explain it.

It's a no drama, no fuss with an emphasis on relaxation and confidence and giving her the opportunity to be an adult at every opportunity.

Aurora pointed out that one reason I might have changed my approach is because the type of horse I was riding fundamentally changed. Back then I was riding stock type geldings.  Now I ride Arab mares.

I think by de-emphasizing "drill" I also de-emphasize making something a "thing". Which, in my experience with smart, opinionated horses, is easy to do. For example, I could easily make crossing water "a thing".

Tig had several opportunities to cross a tiny bit of water crossing the trail.  Headed out from the trailer there were 2 crossings.

At the first crossing I had to use my dressage whip and leg more than I would have liked to urge her across. It took longer than I would have liked. When she finally crossed, it was more "bolt-y" than I would have liked. But she did it.

We moved on down the trail.  That was her reward for finally doing what I asked. We got to move on.  The stress between us immediately diminished and she could focus doing the next thing I asked right.

Let's imagine if I had turned her around and asked her to go back and across and do it "better".

And again

And again

And again…..

In this situation how have I rewarded my horse finally giving into pressure and doing what I asked? Is rewarding the horse by making it repeat the stressful situation over and over more or less likely to result in the horse doing what I want the next time?

Sometimes you can fix an issue by making it a non issue.

I had never thought of myself as an "arab person", but I might very well be one. What a strange thought.

I'm not claiming to know what will work for every horse, or every arab, or every riding situation.  No one "absolute" approach works for everything.  But after working with a dog whose training very much depends on minimizing stress in order to maximize learning, and working with my horses (and others) over the years - I've leaned more and more towards a mostly low-key approach and had a lot of success.


The highlight of the trip was, of course, cantering Tig under saddle for her very first time.

She loves the trail as much as she HATES the arena, and because I feel more comfortable going at speed on the trail, Funder and Aurora encouraged me to introduce Tig to the canter on the trail.

Aurora had in mind a certain hill - good footing and long enough we could get up to a canter but the probability of things getting out of hand were low because it was steep.

Sounded good to me!

I'm not a brave rider, but I can usually tell when a horse is ready to give and have a knack for choosing the right moment for success. On the second half of the loop, headed back the trailer I felt like Tig was ready to canter. So, a little ahead of plan, before we got to the big hill, I asked Aurora to move out in front of me on sections of trail where it was slightly uphill with good visibility (most of the trail we rode on was single or double track) and no rocks.

This was the moment Aurora's mount Scrappy had been chosen for - a sensible Rushcreek who would set a sensible speed and not get on hanky if some excitement behind him ensued!!!!

Scrappy moved out at a rocking horse canter.

I sat the trot, kissed, and bumped Tig with my heels.

I fully expected some small bucks as she coordinated her feet and balance for this new gait, and so when she lurched and gave a slight buck I sat calmly as she worked it out and encourage her with my voice and seat.

And boom!  I had one of the loveliest canters I've ever had the pleasure of sitting.  Uphill, balanced, and gorgeous.

When she dropped to a trot, I gently encouraged her to canter again.

Another few uncoordinated steps and a little buck and there is was again!  Cantering!!!!!

We moved down the trail in the fashion - walking, followed by trot and canter transitions (down and up) where the trail allowed it.

I could tell Tig was having fun - she was totally getting this and she was having FUN. Sit, kiss, bump with my heels and she would transition nicely up to the canter, and then on cue back to the trot. Since the trail naturally lends itself to certain gaits depending on footing and turns, I didn't have to drill a cue - I just matched my body language to what was most efficient and practical for that portion of trail.

Now, with smart horses (and dogs) I've learned there are certain stages of learning I can expect.

At first they are giving me a good try. And as long as I'm fair and patient, they take a lot of joy figuring out what I want. Any apparent "naughtiness" is not intentional - they are just trying to figure it out.

Then, when they get it, I get this sense of pride and joy radiating out from them.  They just seem so PROUD of themselves.

And then…..they usually push the limits. They gave it to me nicely a couple of times but now something in their brain says "that was OK….what about THIS?"

Tig's "THIS" was a full on rodeo bronc buck.

I was sort of expecting this.

Canter is FUN.  Cantering is an awful lot like bucking.  Bucking seems to be a horse's version of even more fun.

So, when out of nowhere my feet were suddenly jammed forward at her shoulder, I saw/sensed hind feet whizzing about at the level of my ears, and she went down for a giant BUCK during a lovely couple of canter strides - I was ready.  I had been maintaining light contact with her mouth, focusing on a deep seat with heels down. So when she bucked, I was able to growl, pulled her back into a trot, and then re-cued the "more obedient" canter. I was quite proud of myself. :). I knew naughtiness would come at some point, and I felt like I had responded in exactly the right way.

Near the end of the ride we came to the giant hill that we were originally going to ask for a canter.  I decided this would be our "fitness test" hill.

I pointed her at it and said "let's go!"

She was game.  She gave it her best shot.  She cantered. She did a couple gallop strides.  She trotted. And finally….she walked.

At the end of the 3 months, I'd love to see her be able to trot up that thing nonstop.

Near the end of the ride about a mile from the trailer Tig decided she was done. She started looking around for grass to nibble (didn't I tell you she is a GREAT endurance prospect) and she started doing what I've learned is her "MO" for being done. Stopping. Balking.

The first time she did this to me was in the arena and she nearly gave me a heart attack, thinking she was tying up.

But nope. I quickly figured out that a mentally or physically done Tig is a Tig that stands quietly being balky.

In some ways a temper tantrum would be easier to deal with.  A quietly standing non-moving horse can be quite the conundrum!

I could tell that Tig was close to being done and fortunately we were very close to the trailer and it was perfect timing - I want her to know that I won't ask too much of her - she doesn't have to protect her self by refusing to come with me. She saw the trailer and picked up a little jog.

When it was time to load her up for the ride home, Tig decided she couldn't possibly be asked to one.more.thing. and stood at the entrance of the trailer, refusing to step in (if "refusing" can be defined as standing there quietly and calmly but not moving forward…..). Aurora helped encourage her from the back and she stepped in.  I got the feeling it was less about getting in the trailer (she knows how to load and isn't nervous about the trailer) and more about her not trusting that I wasn't going to "ask too much". She wanted me to know that she was reaching the end of what she had to give me at that time.


I've learned a lot about this horse in 2 weeks, and -  like I think happens whenever you listen to what an animal is telling you - I learned some things about myself in the process.

But those are topics for the next post!


  1. I think that refusing to move definitely counts as a refusal! But hooray for a successful ride and lovely cantering. Sounds like everyone had fun.

    One of my riding partners has a mare that gets 'stuck' regularly on the trail on the way out. Balking, refusing to move forwards. Very polite, just very stubborn. She's slowly but surely making progress with her, and it's definitely taught me that I prefer a horse who moves when upset to one who flat-out refuses forwards motion.

  2. Tig looks great, love the last photo! :)

    Interesting reading what you say about making things a non-issue. Suggestions for (sweet but opinionated young arab) mare that is getting a bit fitter and feeling that she should be keeping up with the horse(s) in front? Nothing terrible, just jig-jogging (in walk) or rushing (in trot). Basically focused on the other horse(s) and not the rider. We practised the basics of this stuff before, but I think she's feeling good, which is good because she's LOVING preparing for her first ride (and thinks she's awesome), but not so good if she forgets about the rider!

    I had decided to make it my focus/priority, and the last time out with other horses around was more enjoyable, but is that making it an issue? I basically just want her to remember to relax on a loose rein at the chosen gait... but do I reward her by asking her to trot on (once she's walking calmly), or is that re-inforcing that she needs to catch up? Aaahhhhh....

    Little mare is being such a super-star and we're both having heaps of fun, I just want to make sure we're clear on 'rating' speed, so we can keep having fun...

    1. Multiple parts because comment was too long! be honest I've never had this issue, so my advice is coming from a place of guessing and not necessarily from having and then solving that issue. Looking back I can sorta see how I've shaped Farley's behavior and how I'm currently shaping Tig's behavior in regards to this issue, so let's see if I can actually ennunciate it....

      There are 2 scenarios that I ask my horse to let horses move forward without following them.

      1. slow down or stop for long enough for me to complete a task - whether it's getting on or getting off, checking a GPS, getting something out of my saddle back etc. Then we catch up.

      2. The second scenario is when the horses ahead of me are travelling at a pace that is too fast and I want to let them go ahead and stay there. For this scenario I'm asking for her to respond to half halts and gait requests.

      For the first scenario the horse is NOT allowed to bolt towards the group. Relaxed, reasonably loose rein. For the second, depending on the circumstance it may range from full on contact on the bit (and if so, I'm treating it like a whole body dressage work out! Can't waste the opportunity while she's in front of my let!) to a horse that just needs to bumped with the reins to remind what pace we are going. What I expect and ask for depends on what I think my horse is capable of giving me at that point. Sometimes, if she's fresh or at the beginning of a ride - she's going to be on the bit pulling. That's fine - she just signed up for a session of roundness, throughness, straightness, and travelling in a frame properly on the bit. I don't tend to pick the lesson that will turn into the battle. If I always match the lesson to the circumstance then I'm sure my horse is learning the right lesson for that time.

      For example. Tig and I crossed water 4x on the ride. Going out I stayed mounted and with a reasonable amount of urging she crossed (2 times, with the second time being better than the first). On the third water crossing coming back, she balked, and this time after a certain amount of urging, I could feel that the lesson was starting to change and instead of a teaching moment I was entering "trying to win the battle" stage. So I changed the lesson. I hoped off and the lesson became - "cross this without invading my space". Which she did promptly with a tap on the butt from the dressage whip. When I approached the 4th water (there was 2 going out and 2 coming back), she started to hesitate so I immediately jumped off and repeated the lesson of "cross this without entering my personal space" - which she did better than the last time.

      I didn't "lose" - I changed the lesson and picked my moment for success based on what the horse was capable of giving me at the time.

      sorry this is sorta random, but I'm trying to give you ideas of how to formulate your own plan.

      Going back to the "catching up" thing. I rarely "contrive" situations to work on this. The horses I've owned totally catch on to "contrived" situations, find them stupid and pointless and don't want to play the game. However......if I'm riding with a group of people and I pause to mess with gear briefly etc - it seems to make sense to the horse. Especially the purpose driven "need a job" type of horses seem to do well with a stop that has a purpose. I pause to reach down and check the girth. I slow to a walk to tighten the girth. I stop to get something out of the saddle bags. And when I'm done we move on. It's more of a "give me a sec....." moment.

    2. At first these pauses are brief and I chose my moments well. Perhaps it's just a sunglass adjustment or to scratching an itch. But later on you ask for more time to do more complex tasks in higher stress situations. A couple years ago I could NOT have counted on Farley stopping for me to do a tack adjustment in the first half of a race. She would have paused while I tightened the girth in the saddle but anything more complex was OUT. Last year she actually got to the point where at the beginning of the race, even when she was HIGH and in a PACK of horses, she would stop and let me mount and dismount to run down hills. Then at Tevis, fairly early own in the ride when I needed to do a major stirrup adjustment - she let me. She definiately wanted to go - but I could tell she was just waiting until i was done with the task...and as soon as I was ZOOM.

      For some horses it might be enough to say "you must do this because I say". However, in smart mares I find that redefining the task as having a purpose really helps.

      I'm not sure if any of this rambling actually helps. but I would encourage you to:
      1. find a way to naturally integrate the behavior you want.

      2. Choose a new lesson for now that elicits a similar response, if the primary lesson cannot be performed by the horse successfully right now.

      3. If you find it turning it into a battle, change the lesson as fast as you can. Note that in the Tig/water example the lesson was first "go forward when I ask" and the second lesson when I dismounted was "stay out of my space". I didn't dismount and try to teach the same lesson, I taught a new lesson in the same context of the "scary" patch of mud.

      4. Realize what motivates your horse and chose the right moment for success. Farley is motivated by having a job and having a purpose. Integrating these motivations was key to getting the behavior I wanted.

      5. If you find yourself having the reinforce the same lesson over and over and over because they keep getting it wrong, be mindful of what "unintended lessons" you might be teaching your horse beyond the one you are trying to teach. (I've done quite a few of these "lessons" with Tess.....not so good!).

      6. Remember that while stress can be good and we want to instill certain "stress reactions" in our horses (staying out of my space at all costs comes to mind) - most of the lessons we want to teach our horses we don't WANT to elicit a stress/fear reaction. Try to chose your lessons/situations so that cortisol levels stay low and maximum learning can take place.

  3. What an awesome ride! I really admire your approach with her. Can't wait to hear more.

  4. When my friend Patty's horse was green and got tired (in body or brain), she would stop dead for a minute or could practically see the animated hourglass over her head with a caption that read "buffering." Then she'd gather herself up and move forward again without incident. Funny!

    (Fee's version was to slam on the brakes in a full-on angry toddler tantrum. Sigh)

    1. LOL that sounds like EXACTLY what happens to her. She's never had a melt down or exploded....but sometimes she "buffers". LOL.

  5. Mel, I really, REALLY appreciate your response. Making me think about it differently, thanks! :) I particularly like: "However, in smart mares I find that redefining the task as having a purpose really helps". I get it - she doesn't see the point! She loves having a job, so instead of drilling (like you get told by experts to do), just need to show her the point (which works well with her).

    Also, Aarene's Buffering description has still got me grinning - thanks! :)

  6. Just catching up after a few weeks of being too busy to read much:) I love your philosophy about not doing the drills. I used to be the same way in that I thought you had to keep working on something until it was perfect before advancing. Then, I got a dog who was not food-oriented, sensitive to sound, scared of anything and anyone new, and who saw no purpose in doing something more than once. It changed the way I looked at training a dog and it made me think about how I worked with my horse. And I came to the same conclusion you did. Drills are not always that helpful. And not just for smart Arab mares. My Friesian gelding will actually get worse at something the more times he does it. If he does it right once or twice, and I keep asking, the quality of his work will degrade to the point that it's like he's not even trained to be ridden at all. I often have trouble communicating that to riding instructors who seem to think that doing a pattern, transition, or movement 3-5 times is essential before moving on. What I like to do if the first or second time doing something doesn't work well is to go do something else for awhile and then come back to it later in the ride or even in the next ride. I'm not an expert on learning, but even for myself, I've noticed that sometimes the best learning seems to occur after I've tried to do something and failed. I think about it and then try again later with better results. I don't know if horses spend any time rethinking rides or lessons, but it does seem like taking some time away from a difficult task can help. Thanks for posting all your thoughts about working with Tig! It's fun to read about how you're working with her.


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