Thursday, June 4, 2009

Equitation Refresher

I almost didn't get my first Thursday of vacation off from work to take my first equitation refresher of the year, because someone in England decided to extend the deadline for the project I was working on (that belongs to the coworker who is on paternity leave) until tonight in order to fit in some last minute changes. I managed to keep my vacation day by getting my daughter to substitute for me at work. I still had to help her to a small degree, so I didn't totally get to escape work, but am getting more vacation hours than work hours at least.

The first thing my equitation instructor said when he saw me was, "Hey, Skinny." He knows that last year I was going vegan in an effort to lose weight. I lost 30 pounds at the time, but haven't lost any weight since. I've been stuck at a plateau for about nine months, but I appreciated the compliment anyway. He said my waist looks slimmer. I've been trying to do a few sit-ups every night, so they must be helping.

The lesson was a bit rough. I forewarned my instructor not to expect much improvement out of me since I can't promise to get any practice time in between lessons. I also forewarned him that my horses are relearning to be ridden off the property after a long winter and may not behave themselves.

I purposefully left my riding crop at home, because I knew Bombay would be spooking a lot, and I didn't want my instructor to force me to whip him as punishment. He seemed irritated that I didn't bring my crop, and I told him that I don't agree with the idea of punishing a horse for spooking. All the books I read say that it just makes the horse more fearful to punish it when it is scared.

My instructor said something to the effect of, "Stop reading books. Books are bad. Everybody has a different opinion and books will just confuse you. I've been working with horses my entire life and know that you have to straighten them out and bring their attention back to you when they spook. Spooking is just silly behavior that they do to try to get out of doing work, and you can't let them get away with it or the behavior will get worse. Half the time they aren't even scared. They're just jerking you around. You have to stay in control, and when your horse spooks, the horse is in control."

That makes sense to me. He said that since I didn't bring my riding crop, I had better be prepared to kick my horse. I never kick my horses. I just use my legs and they respond. Not today. Bombay decided to be lazier than I've ever seen him. I don't know if it was just that he's out of shape or if he was jerking me around, because he didn't seem ill in any way. It was warm and humid, but not too hot for exercise. His jog was to die for, but he dawdled instead of walked, trotted lazily with no energy to push me up out of the saddle, so I had to do all the work while posting, and trying to get him to lope was like pulling teeth.

I had to keep kicking him harder and harder until he finally rebelled by launching into a couple of bucks. I pulled his head up and halted him. My instructor says that my worst habit is that I allow the reins to slip through my fingers and they get looser and looser until I completely lose contact with my horse's mouth, and then I lose control. Had I kept the reins tight, he couldn't have gotten his head down to buck. On the other hand, if I weren't kicking him so hard, he probably wouldn't have bucked either. I've decided to use the riding crop since I can maintain my seat better tapping his rear with that rather than throwing my legs out to the side to get momentum to get a good kick in that he can actually feel. In fact, I suspect that part of why he was being so stubborn was because he was totally aware of the fact that I was not carrying a whip.

We moved out of the round pen into the big arena by the llama farm. Bombay puffed himself up and started jumping this way and that at everything he saw as if it were the first time he'd ever been there. I was doing my darndest to keep him under control, because I didn't want my instructor to start ordering me to kick him some more. Should he decide to start bucking in the arena, he had a lot more room to do it in.

Just when he was starting to settle down, one of my neighbor's foals jumped out of her stall over a wheelbarrow, knocking the wheelbarrow over, which made a huge crash. All the horses on her farm started whinnying and running circles, while Bombay did the biggest spook ever and bolted. He went quite a few strides before I was able to halt him. My instructor was worried for me, so he told me to just point him toward the commotion and wait it out.

The filly came busting out of the barn with her dam right behind her. We waited for them to stop galloping around before continuing our lesson. In the case of that spook, Bombay was very obviously startled so I did not kick him, and thankfully my instructor dropped the subject of punishing spooks since the commotion nearly made both of us have an accident in our pants. It was loud and totally unexpected. I had to take a bunch of deep breaths to stop from shaking all over. After that he just worked on walk to jog and jog to walk transitions, which I need to work on since Bombay keeps rooting through the bit instead of staying in frame.

My instructor wants me to rock his head from side to side as I'm asking him to transition to prevent him from throwing his nose out. After our lesson ended, I was leading Bombay past my instructor's car, and his dog leaped at us through the crack in the window and growled. Bombay jumped and spun, but I just held on and started talking to the dog in my look-at-the-cute-little-puppy voice. One of my neighbor's neighbors left his big dog outside, and it barked at us throughout the lesson. Bombay did a good job of tuning the dog out. My instructor kept yelling at the dog to shut up. I could see that he was quite agitated by it and kept complaining about how much he hates people who let their dogs bark non-stop. The owner of the dog is a drunk, so he's probably passed out and can't even hear it.

Overall, I'm proud of myself for hanging on and keeping my balance despite all the spooks, bolts, and bucking. My instructor thought I hadn't fallen too far behind in the months I had off from lessons, but he does feel that Bombay needs retraining so that he will be more respectful and responsive. Quite honestly, this was the worst day Bombay has had in years. He's usually a great horse in the arena. I'm sure things can only improve from here.


KD said...

Way to stick, Cowgirl !

Kate said...

I did a post on May 2 on spooking that you may, or may not, be interesting in. I just don't believe that horses are ever "jerking you around" - that's projecting people behavior onto horses. I've also had a lot of experience with the "kick em/whack em" school of training, and while a horse may be coerced into "good" behavior, you never will achieve an effective relationship with a horse using those methods - no horse that is treated that way can ever trust you. IMHO.

Kate said...

NuzzMuzz - just to clarify, my comment was in no way intended as a criticism of you - I just found your trainer's methods somewhat antithetical to what I try to do with my horses.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Good for you, riding out those bucks! If you are at the bottom now, then it's uphill from here, yay!!!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Kate - I read your post. I remember I did read it when you posted it in May, but my memory stinks, so I read it again. I'd be interested in hearing more about your experience with different schools of training and what led you to come to your current beliefs. You must have seen some behavior in your horses that convinced you that "kick em/whack em" just makes things worse. I think the fact that Bombay hasn't bucked with me on his back in over seven years, and suddenly did it today after I kicked him says a lot. When my horses spook I prefer to either ignore it and distract them with more work, or have them face the object of their fears.

Callie said...

Great job! All that commotion would probably cause the steadiest ole babysitter to spook! Good for you & Bombay!

fernvalley01 said...

I would bwe interested to watch you ride Bombay , I have a feeling what your instructor is after is focus(but not quite getting it).I don't think Bombay ias "jerking your chaiN" Horses don't think that way ,its just not personal,I supect that Bombay is drifting in his attention and "spooking at Air butterflies"
What I would do is probably ask you to focus onwhat is goping on as ,or just before he spooks ,and maybe track the triggers then either drive him ,or tap him ,or change direction to keep him thinking about you and focused and attentive . This is not some fresh young colt that hasn't seen the world ,nor does he seem to be a sour old dog trying to get rid of you . If you like the rest of what your trainer is teaching you fine , but I agree whipping after the fact is , frankly , shovelling Sh#@ against the tide

Katharine Swan said...

You know, NM, I know that you said you need this trainer, but think of it this way -- he needs you too. So perhaps you should simply tell him that you are not going to physically punish your horses for spooking, and to please drop it.

I do agree that bringing their attention back to you is necessary. I think that when you do, they usually realize they did something they shouldn't have, and quiet down again. But I think a low, drawn-out "Hey..." or a growl gets the point across just fine -- without causing them to panic. The idea is to remind them of how they're supposed to be behaving, not make them scared of you too!

So don't back down and let him harass you. Tell him you're not comfortable doing that, and that otherwise you really like him and would like not to have change trainers, so to please stop pressuring you to whip your horses. :o)

Katharine Swan said...

P.S. You know, I don't use a crop, or even a lunge whip for that matter. In my opinion, like pretty much everything, it's only necessary if you teach the horse it is.

Paint Girl said...

I do not agree with your trainers method of whipping them when they spook. Most horses do not spook on purpose, I am going to speak from experience here, about my Brandy. When I got her 5 yrs ago, she was very greenbroke, insecure, didn't trust anyone, extremely spooky. She was 9 yrs old. Her previous owner saddle broke her, than let her sit in the same pasture for 8 yrs. I had alot of issues to work with. I NEVER use a whip when dealing with her spookiness, I mean she will spook at a butterfly! She had never experienced half the stuff we encountered on a trail ride before, so why punish her for it? It isn't her fault. I make her face her fears, I never turn her away and walk away from it, although she will try to spin away. Now it doesn't take long to calm her down and get her to approach what is scaring her. She now trusts me to help her through a spooky situation, at the beginning it wasn't that easy! I do agree with your trainer, that you do need to get their attention back on you. Very important. But not by whipping.
You are right by telling your trainer you are not using the whip. I wouldn't kick either, stick to what you have been doing, it works! I think you are doing the right thing in how you are handling your horses!

Andrea said...

Oh my goodness, I can't believe I have missed so much. I have been so busy. I have 11 posts that I have missed over here! I can't believe it!!! And I come back to read about Bombay bucking, spooking, and taking off! WOW!! Your legs must be sore today!! Crazy!! I am kinda on the same boat as your instructor about spooking. My horse won't spook with my husband, but he spooks with me. But I think it's because I am always looking at stuff and saying to myself, "Oh he's going to spook at that!" where my husband just doesn't care about anything. I must tense up more too and I know the horse feels that.

But it sounds like Bombay just needs a bit of a refresher coarse! Keep up the good work!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Yeehaw! What a wild ride...gah!
Good for you hanging on. It's obvious you've got a nice sticky deep seat, or you would have fallen off. Good for you!
I tell ya, though, reading through this made my heart skip a beat, though. I'm always worried about people riding horses getting hurt now. It's at the topof my brain. bah!

Maybe it's just me, but from everything you write about this trainer....I just don't like him. Sounds like you know more than him, at least in regards to your own horses.


Kate said...

NuzzMuzz - I have endless horror stories I could tell about bad things I have seen happen to horses and riders, and their relationships, due to people using "traditional" training methods. I got tired of seeing stuff happen that I felt wrong about, and then started casting about for something different/better. My background with horses was very traditional, so it took me a long time - it was attending clinics with Mark Rashid, initially as an auditor, that did the trick - seeing how it could work in a way that was effective and respected the horse. Now, I try not to think so much about the bad memories, but try to focus on the positive.

With spooking, I find riding through it - you did a great job by the way just keeping going through the spooks - is usually the answer. Sometimes if you can get ahead of the spook by keeping the horse occupied with a more difficult pattern requiring the horse to think hard about where he is putting the feet (say, zigzags or serpentines) can actually prevent a spook before it happens - of course that isn't always possible.

Your other commentators are right - the trainer works for you, not the other way around, and you have a right to tell him what you are and aren't comfortable with. If he doesn't take it well, that's his problem and not yours. Trainer/rider is a power relationship for sure and it's hard to say no when a trainer tells you to do something - I've been there and done that myself in the past.

Just think of your place and your neighbor's arena as training areas for spooking! Good luck!

Leah Fry said...

I completely disagree with your trainer that they spook to get out of working. And I will NOT punish my horse when he's terrified, as he was when I got dumped last week. That just makes it worse. You did exactly the right thing, according to what I have been taught.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

The sad thing is that every horse person in this area who I have talked to feels that spooking is just "naughty" horse behavior that needs to be corrected. The arguments on both sides make sense to me, but ultimately the proof is in the pudding. If I ignore spooks, the frequency doesn't get any better, and the horse often spooks at the same things over and over. If I punish the horse for spooking, the spooking decreases, but I can feel tension in the horse while it is trying to hold itself together, and sometimes punishing adds anger to the mix which makes the situation more dangerous. I'm hoping to find something that will actually improve them without driving a wedge in my relationship with my horse, like Kate mentions. I'm thinking that is heading spooks off at the pass by keeping the horse's mind busy and keeping his attention on you. That's just as exhausting for the rider as it is for the horse, but then again, riding out spooks can be exhausting too.

My instructor made another comment that showed his ignorance. He said, "If you are just going to be trail riding, than none of this matters." I don't remember the context, but I do remember that I had to correct him and explain that trail riding is way more dangerous and takes way more skill on the part of both the horse and rider than riding in arenas. Arenas have predictable environments once the horse makes a lap in each direction, but trails always have something new up ahead. It made me kind of wonder if he's ever been on a trail ride on a green horse. I think I'll ask him next week. I also asked him if he's ever used bitless bridles, and he's never heard of them.

Lulu said...

I'm on the fence here... I do think that sometimes horses LOOK for something to spook at. I agree that they try to avoid work. At the same time, some spooks are warranted and should not be punnished.

At home, I don't punnish the spook, but I do punnish how they react. I do not care the circumstances, I will not allow them to ever jump on me or bolt. If something spooks them and they need to stop and look, I always let them.

manker said...

having an arabian.. this is (unfortunately ) a subject i can speak on! :) and also :(.. I've come to better discern when it's an honest spook at which point we just move on.. if it's not... it has become .. "you spook, you work".. If i were to whip and kick him.. I'd land in san diego QUICKLY !!

way to go N.M. Gives new meaning to what my trainer would say.. "sometimes you just have to sit down and ride"...


Katharine Swan said...

He hadn't heard of bitless bridles? I don't use one, but I've heard plenty about them, both good and bad. As much of a controversy as they are, it's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't.

I do think that sometimes horses spook for no reason, but I think it's because they are nervous and tense and that's how they relieve the tension, NOT because they are doing it on purpose to get out of working.

NM, you don't have to choose between whipping your horse and letting them get away with it. Those are two extremes, and you just have to find the happy medium. Try giving them a little warning "Hey..." or scolding them with your voice. It might bring them back to reality without having to scare the crap out of them to do it.

Other than that, I agree with you, keeping their minds busy is a good way to both avoid the spook and give them confidence in their own abilities.

HorseOfCourse said...

I have had a couple of spooky horses (posted on the subject in Feb.) and I agree with Kate and Paint Girl. To punish Bombay when he spooks won't solve the problem, IMHO.

So what to do?
Please excuse me, NuzzMuzz, because I don't know Bombay as a horse, or you as a rider - but from my experience with spooky horses I would consider following:

A fresh horse often spooks more than one that is regularily worked. So I would try to make it a routine to work Bombay the day before instruction. In that way you might reduce the problem.

One of the basic foundations in dressage is that your horse should be relaxed. I believe that goes for whatever work you are to do with your horse. Only when he is in a mentally relaxed frame of mind you can get your message through, and your horse can learn - and work in a correct frame.
So I would try not to get angry, or frustrated, because that would tense him up. I would put Bombay to work, and just ignore the spooks or if he tenses up. Use those exercises that works well with him; circles, transistions, leg yields etc., whatever, stay calm and he will probably gradually settle down as he has to concentrate on the work. And if you work him a while before your instructor comes next time, hopefully you will have a more relaxed horse before the lesson starts.

Maybe also you were a bit tense yourself that day, not having had instruction for quite a while? And wanting to show the both of you from your best side? And Bombay picked it up? Just a thought.

When you write "my horses are relearning to be ridden off the property after a long winter and may not behave themselves" I believe that explains a lot.
I read something interesting on this a while ago.
The horse's threshold level of reaction (read spook!) is depending on what environment they normally live in.
An attempt to explain:
If you keep your horse in a calm and stable setting, like at your home, the threshold level of reaction is lowered and the horse spooks at small things because they fall out of the normal settings.
If you keep your horse in a more varied context, like taking him out on trail often, keeping him in a busy yard, close to a road etc. he hightens his threshold reaction level (spooks less) as he finds out that the things that happens around him are not dangerous and he saves his energy to those situations that might be.
So if you can find the possibility to take him out on trails it might reduce spooking at home?

But I assume it comes down to your time problem again, NM!

And if you are not comfortable with what your instructor tells you, listen to your gut feeling.
Your horse should be your partner.
I have always been told that "The fault lies above the saddle", and I belive that is a good aphorism!

Sorry for the long, ranting comment.
I have had a couple of those sessions myself, and it is not fun to see your money and a good opportunity to get some work done with the horse go out of the window because your horse is mentally absent. But sometimes that's how it is. I am happy you stayed on!
I am sure it will work better next time, NM. Keep us informed!

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

This is a good discussion. I'm glad everyone made it through without name-calling, because I know it is an emotional subject. At least it's something that wrenches at my heart. I want to be a better rider, but not at the expense of my horse's mental health.

Regarding time and exposure helping horses get past their spooking, I totally agree with that, and exposure has been my number one goal over the past couple of years. Something always manages to get in the way for me, so my progress is slow. I did take my horses to the arenas where I am taking lessons the weekend before my lesson, and tried to get them out there early before the instructor arrived, but my sunglasses broke and I spent all that time searching for another pair, then my instructor arrived 20 minutes early. It was just one thing after another, which is the way my life has been going lately. I'm sure that my rush, rush, rush lifestyle reflects itself once I climb into the saddle, which the horses pick up on. I may just be high energy because I'm late and all these bad things happened to me on the way over to the lesson, but the horses translate that into that there must be a monster close by. Unless something drastically changes in my life, relaxation will not be in my vocabulary. I'm hoping my horses will meet me halfway on that one.

fernvalley01 said...

NuzMuz , you may haved nailed it ! if you are stressed and high energy ,your horse will feed off of it , and be looking for the monster on your back!

allhorsestuff said...

Wow..good job firstly..tons of spooky thinkg afoot and in the air there!
I think there were a few people that said they thought spoks had two origins..I know my Thoroughbred spooks genuinly and sometimes because she dislikes what Iu ask her to do or "To go".
I never thought about it like that really is true...I never punish her for the true spook...but the other..she has much more work ahead.

You are doping well with you guy trainer...hope you can be bold enough to speak your desires.

Breathe said...

Welcome to the velcro pockets club, and way to stick it, girl!

By far the most effective thing I've done is a quick spin, then turn and face the fear.

If my energy is calm, the resolution of the spook is easier. I have even gotten off and walked over to the horse eating bit of rust and helped my horse face it and sniff it.

As a result it seems like he's giving to my leadership more. But their reaction time is 5x faster than ours, it helps to have those velcro back pockets. :)

Jenn said...

There is a world of difference between a horse spooking out of fear and one who scuttles sideways because it's become a learned behavior. They do not spook to get out of work...they don't have that mental capacity. Punishing for fear does nothing to stop the true spook and is a trust-buster...preventing a learned behavior before it happens and redirecting the horse's attention into productive work is training.