Thursday, February 5, 2015

Softening and Hardening


When I first started working with horses, I had no idea what the term "softening" meant.  Eventually, after reading enough books, going to enough clinics, and hiring enough trainers, I understood it on an intellectual level.  However, the logic behind the training to soften your horse still baffled me.  For instance, I take all four of my horses out to the round pen and work with them both on the ground and from the saddle with exercises that are designed to soften your horse to the bit and to your cues, so that they will be more responsive.  All four of them act like old pros who don't need refresher courses on the matter.  Yet, once we are out on the trails and something scares them, they turn to stone.  I can't pull their heads around, and I can't get them to listen to any of the cues that they follow so willingly in the arena, because that natural fear instinct obliterates their entire education.

Sorry to be a sourpuss, but I no longer believe that old adage that solid groundwork will translate and pay off in the saddle.  Each time I nearly get into a wreck on the trails, a trainer tells me to go back to groundwork.  I go back to groundwork and find that the horses are perfect.  There's nothing they can improve on.  Maybe they are perfect because they are at home in their safety zone, and I really should be practicing this groundwork out on the trails.  Ha ha!  That would really throw all those old cowboys and cowgirls for a loop who keep stopping to ask me if I'm okay because I'm not on my horse's back.  I don't think I've ever seen anyone with a carrot stick doing groundwork with their horse out in the desert.

Anyway, I was watching Downunder Horsemanship on RFD-TV in which a Clinton Anderson Certified Trainer was giving a clinic on all the softening exercises I do with my horses.  I learned them through reading his books and attending his clinics over the years.  She was saying that a lot of people think they are doing the exercises right, but then when a trainer watches them, it usually turns out that there is just one small adjustment they need to make to get more effective results.  So, I watched the show and did pick up on a few things I could do differently.  I also learned that my standards for my horses were not high enough.  The horses do what I ask, but they could to it faster and be more precise.

I started being more demanding with Rock regarding the speed at which he responds.  Most of my horses will run backwards if I really put the pressure on, but Rock has always moved at the speed of a lazy elephant.  Unfortunately, I learned that he had good reason to be hesitant about backing up quickly.  The poor guy stepped on his tail and ripped a bunch of hair out.  So, next time we work on that, I'll braid his tail beforehand.

Cut to my efforts to train my Corgi Midge to stop wrapping the leash around my legs.  She has this habit of stopping to potty, and then as soon as she is done, she runs behind my legs and around to the front of me, pulling the leash against the back of my legs and putting me off balance.  I especially do not want her doing that to me now with my knee injury.

At first, when this began happening, I'd express surprise or pain, and drop the leash, then chase her around to grab the leash again.  Then I got good at swapping the leash between hands behind my back.  Then I thought, "I need to train the dog to just stop that behavior because it's annoying me."

So, I first had to train myself to remember the problem and be ready for it.  As soon as she started running behind me, I'd yank the leash to force her to come around to the side of me or in front of me.  The only problem was that she resisted the yank and started pulling backwards.  Then the collar would slip right off her head and I'd be chasing a loose dog around the yard.  So, I'd tighten her collar and try again, and still we would get into these stand offs where she was determined to break free of her leash.  Those struggles were counter-productive.

I then began yanking the leash in quick, short increments, offering a release in between yanks so that she couldn't brace against the pull and wiggle out of her collar.  This is exactly what the CA trainer was teaching in the clinic regarding horses.  If you are working on lateral flexation, don't pull the horse's head around and hold it there waiting for it to release the pressure.  Give the rope short, fast yanks as you pull the head around, so the horse has nothing to brace against.  I found that this worked with my dog.  She figured out that the yanking would stop if she stopped running behind my legs.

So, now I'm at a point with Midge where all I have to do is gently lift the leash when she's done doing her business, and she remembers to stay beside me or in front of me.  We are finally working together stress-free.  Now I can say that I not only understand softening intellectually, but I understand it kinetically.


I have been attending my kickboxing classes despite my knee injury.  My daughter has been taking these classes and said she was having a blast, which is why I signed up.  It's good to hear her be enthusiastic about something, and I trust her judgment.  I told her about my health issues that might get in the way of my performance, and she said that the instructor is so easygoing that he'd understand and wouldn't put me on the spot for not being able to keep up.

I took kickboxing classes about 15 years ago, and they were fun until I got this instructor who liked to go fast and hard, and change it up every few seconds.  By the time she was done yelling out the new moves, she was yelling out another set of new moves, and neither my brain nor my body could keep up.  Then she'd stop class to tell me everything I was doing wrong and humiliate me.  That was the end of my participation in the activity.

So, I hesitantly showed up to this new kickboxing class.  I had been wearing my knee brace all day and it had been pinching and chaffing, so I decided to leave it at home and just be conscientious about always keeping my knees bent and not doing anything that involves jumping or stomping.  I was going to tell the instructor about my knee, but he started class before I could say anything.

There were a couple of young gals in their 20's, one being my daughter, a couple of middle-aged ladies, one being me, and an older couple in their 70's.  Everyone was slim except for me and the other middle-aged lady.  I thought for sure the instructor would teach to all ages and body types.

The first half of class was spent warming up every part of our bodies, and there were quite a few exercises I couldn't do.  We were on a hard gymnasium floor with very thin yoga mats, and he had us get on our knees several times.  I also discovered what I suspected -- I'm getting arthritis in both hips.  It hurt just to sit on that floor.  I could feel my hip joints grinding in their sockets.  He also did exercises that even people in their 20's have a hard time doing, like lying on your back and then lifting both legs together and your upper body at the same time like closing and opening a pair of scissors.  So, I adapted by just lifting one leg at a time.

Even though the instructor didn't saying anything to embarrass me when I chose to do something different or nothing at all, I was wondering if signing up for the class was a mistake.  Then we moved on to the kickboxing portion, where we each stood in front of a standing punching bag.  He took the time to show us how to stand in relation to the bag, and how to hold our thumbs and wrists to avoid injury.  He showed us what part of our leg or foot should be connecting with the bag with each type of kick, and he took the time to make sure that everyone was doing it right in slow motion before bringing it up to speed.

I was amazed at how quickly it all came back to me.  The instructor said I was stronger on one side than the other (like a horse).  None of the kickboxing exercises hurt my knee.  My daughter commented on how high I was kicking compared to other people.  At one point we were kicking out behind us, and I jokingly said, "This is how I kick my horses when they are misbehaving."

The instructor raised his eyebrow and said, "That's a pretty powerful kick you got there."

I think he was worried I'd hurt the horse, but horses kick each other all the time, and they've got sharp hooves and can kick much harder and faster than humans.  I actually do occasionally kick my horses in the chest if I'm leading them and they start trying to walk over the top of me because they are scared of something or just in a hurry to get home.  It's effective, and it's no different from what another horse would do if it were being crowded on a trail ride.  It also keeps me safe if I don't have time to turn around and back the horse up.  It turned out that the instructor adopted some wild burros, and one of them was pregnant, so now he's dealing with a baby burro, and he's got his hands full.

By the time the class was over, everyone was dripping with sweat.  The oldest lady lost her balance doing the cool down stretches and fell on that hard floor.  It took the two men to lift her off the floor, because she couldn't get up.  I think she needed to get on her knees, but couldn't because it was too painful.  So, the instructor gave her chair to lean on while stretching once they got her upright again.  He also told her not to do certain exercises because they aggravated her health problems.

The next morning I woke up with more energy than usual and was more productive.  My knee also felt stronger, and I realized that this class is what I need to build up and harden those muscles that fail me when I get injured.  I'm still hesitant to ride a horse, mainly because I want to build up my upper body strength first so that I can gently lower myself to the ground when dismounting.  I usually lift one leg over the horse, pull my other foot out of the stirrup, and then push out away from the horse, and jump down.  There's no way I could land that hard now without suffering.  My knee hurts when I simply put too much weight on it when walking.  I can hold the weight of myself up and dangle off the side of a horse, but I can't lower myself down in a controlled manner yet.

I'm thinking that maybe I should build a big wooden platform like they have at some riding stables, so that I can dismount onto it and save my knees, even after my knee has healed.  It won't help me if I have to dismount on the trails, but at least it might cut back on the number of times I have to come down hard on my feet and give me a few extra years without pain.  Also, I'm thinking if I even own any other horses in the future (which is not likely since most of my current horses will probably outlive me), it would behoove me to make sure they are under 15 hands high.

With the second kickboxing class, I chose to wear shoes rather than to go barefoot since the floor was so dirty, but could not do the balancing on one leg exercises as well with shoes on.  Our instructor brought the director of the program in to help teach.  My regular instructor was very encouraging in that he was always telling me, "You got it.  You it the first time.  Good job."

The director is an actual competing kick boxer.  He goes into boxing rings and kicks butt.  So, he was a little more intense about getting us into good form and up to speed.  I found that my memory was failing me more than my body, because if there were more than three steps to a pattern, I'd forget them when we were performing at the faster speeds.  Then I'd get frustrated and just stand there trying to figure out what was going on.  The two things he gave me the hardest time about were forgetting to breathe through my nose and not looking at the bag while I'm kicking it.  He said, "Always keep your eye on your opponent."

I have a strong spatial awareness, so I tend to know where everything is around me.  It's like I've got eyes in the back of my head, but I did look at the bag to satisfy him.  Of course, if I were fighting a real person and not a stationary bag, I'd want to watch the body language of my opponent for hints of which move is coming next so I can defend myself.  He went into explaining what each of the moves would do if we were actually in a fight.  For instance this move is a kick to the groin followed up by a chop to the Adam's apple on the neck.  That was kind of interesting because it helped us visualize better and get our hands and feet moving at the right levels.  I thought this class would just be an exercise class, but it is turning out to be a self defense class as well.

He approached my daughter after class and seemed really impressed with her form.  He was convinced that she's had professional training before.  She's just really smart, athletic, flexible, and can mimic a rhythm well.  She's had some dance classes, is a musician, and participated in sports.  All of that helps.  For a minute there, I thought he was going to try to recruit my petite 5'4" kid into professional boxing.  She can kick box all she wants as long as it is only with a punching bag.  I don't need anymore concussions in this family.

My muscles are sore and I'm feeling myself getting more fit by the day.  I try not to do too much physical labor around the barn before classes, because I'll wear myself out and get really stiff.  I have this knack for going outside around 1:30 PM to work with a couple of horses in the round pen, thinking I'll just be out there for an hour, and next thing I know, it's dinner time and I have to feed all the animals and clean up manure.  I had to take some Ibuprofen before the last class because I lost track of time again and couldn't get up out of the recliner after working with the horses all afternoon and doing barn chores.


fernvalley01 said...

yay! glad the class is working out for you

Crystal said...

Sounds like a good choice going to the class, glad it's working. And I'm with you I want smaller horses....I actually looked at a pony haha can you imagine me chasing cows on a 13 hand pony!

Cut-N-Jump said...

The dismounting- I feel your pain. My left knee gives me issue, not from getting off my high horse (16.2h mare), but getting out of my truck. Landing on it all the time does me no favors.

My suggestion is stepping down out of the saddle instead of lowering yourself or hopping off. Much easier on the body. Also doing it from both sides, just like mounting. You never know when the trail won't be wide enough to get on or off the left side of the horse. They should be familiar and comfortable with it from Both sides.

The issue with losing control of them on the trail, they are focusing on things other than you. If you have to pop them once or twice on the butt to get their attention back on you, do it. You're the leader, right? Who's in charge here?

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

CNJ - I'm not sure what you mean by stepping down. If I can't get my foot in the stirrup to step up without a mounting block, then I can't keep it in the stirrup to step down without ripping my groin muscles. People have different ranges of motion.

Cut-N-Jump said...

Believe me, it's a stretch getting On my mare without any sort of assistance. Cindy can attest to that! lol With an English saddle it just doesn't happen for a couple of reasons.

With the western saddle it is still tough for me to get on her, but stepping down is just that. Sweep your right leg back and over the butt and step down.

I will admit too, my range of motion isn't fantastic and since tearing the muscle in my butt a couple years back, it's easier for me to get on her on the right side, than it is the left if I'm mounting from the ground. It's literally a pain in the butt for me. :-(

achieve1dream said...

That kickboxing class sounds really awesome!! I'm glad you're enjoying it and that it's helping you get stronger. :D

You're supposed to do short, sharp yanks when doing lateral flexion?? I always thought you were supposed to just pull the head around and hold it until they give... no wonder he still feels heavy. Sigh. I don't like yanking on his mouth...