Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Q & A : Sluggish Horses

Katy Campbell from Alaska Asks: How do you ride a sluggish horse without looking like you are killing him?

There are many different personality types of horses. Some are overachievers, some are hot, and certainly some are lazier or more sluggish by nature than others. These horses can make you feel like you are working yourself to death just to keep them loping. They are slow to respond to cues, hard to get quick responses out of, and you can struggle with having proper drive and forward motion. Along with these seemingly negative traits, come a number of positives. These horses are usually less spooky, they rarely are running off with you, and if you can get them going, they often are good stoppers. I have a couple of horses that are this way. My roan stallion, Laddie, is a prime example. He a gorgeous loper, huge stopper and has a generally cool demeanor. For maneuvers like a spin, though, teaching him to add speed was challenging. He was willing to be kicked on rather than to speed up. I cannot spin him using my leg for acceleration. I have to start him in his spin, put a lot of life in my body, and then always quit him when he has stepped it up a gear. If I kick him for that, he will simply stiffen up and take my kick. I cluck to him, and if he doesn’t gear up, I use my rein on his shoulder. Now, he is quite willing to step it up just from a subtle cluck.

I have learned a valuable piece of information over the years. When you are riding or training a numb horse, it can be easy to fall into the habit of taking ahold of them, or kicking them harder because they feel numb. In those moments we tend to forget that the heaviness or softness in a horse is not a physical trait, but a mental trait. Even though it feels right to handle those numb horses harder, the truth is, lightness is more important in these horses than in a more reactionary horse. With this type of horse you must always ask with the lightest of cues and enforce with a quicker and harder correction. They are often willing to take that grey area amount of pressure rather than do what you are asking of them. For example, if I am asking my horse to accelerate, I will cluck to him and gently squeeze my legs. I give him a moment to respond, and then I will more aggressively over and under him with my reins. The next time I ask, I will go back to the very lightest of cues. I graduate my pressure faster with this horse, but I am more careful to preserve the initial cue. I won’t bother with the in between steps with him because they are ineffectual to this type of horse. I will focus harder on him understanding what I am asking, more than physically dragging him there. Horses like this can actually be easier to train for most people for the simple reason that their lazy nature makes them seek the relief more than another horse. They are the perfect horse for making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy. Always give these horses the opportunity to do the right thing and get that release, but be very clear about making the wrong thing more meaningful. Make your training of this horse very black and white and you will find that he becomes lighter and more agreeable with each ride.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Meet Ronnie and Vinnie, the buffalo at Willfully Guided. Come work the buffalo and learn proper position, rating, and handling of cattle and buffalo. This is a fun, low pressure way to move forward in your cattle training. We offer some one day clinics, evening clinics, and the buffalo are available for private lessons as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Creating a Box

When your horse travels around in frame, he is staying within the boundaries all of your aides. The way I best explain this is as an imaginary box. The front of the box is your bit and he is behind the bit. The sides of the box are you reins and legs; he is between your reins and between your legs. The back of the box is the drive from your seat. Mentally I picture that those aides form a box around my horse. When I am giving no particular cue to my horse, I want an idle position where he is not making contact with any of my aides, a home position, if you will. As I ask him to steer, or stop, or leg yield, I picture that portion of the box shifting accordingly. My goal is to train my horse respond to the pressure in a way that moves him back in a home position where the pressure release comes from him hunting the freedom that being within the box allows. (In the picture I am using my left leg to press Stetson back between my reins.) If there is a place where my horse is resisting, I ask myself, which portion of the box is receiving the pressure. I then break down that piece of the box and lighten up that part of their body.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keeping it Simple

All training, cues and communication with your horse are based on the concept of pressure and release. Whether it is something as simple as walking a circle or as complicated as sliding stops and lead changes, the philosophy is the same. A horse’s natural instinct is to resist or to push back into pressure. The first time you halter a horse, they pull against the halter. The first time you put a finger to their side to ask them to move over, they will push back into your finger. Our job as our horse’s educator is to teach them that the proper response to pressure is to give to it, and move away from it. You teach a horse to yield because you apply pressure, and escalate the pressure until they move away and then you release. The horse learns to look for the release of pressure as relief. This will be the foundation for all future training. Once they understand moving away from pressure, they will be able to grasp yielding to multiple cues (pressure) at once. At its most complex concept, this results in creating a box that consists of your hands, legs and your seat. This is the box that your horse will learn to stay within: behind and between your hands, between your legs and ahead of your seat.

I know that to a lot of you this seems like a very basic concept. You’ve heard it before. What I have found is that most people forget about this when they move into more complex training. Once there is the task of completing a maneuver such as a spin, or a lead change, people think that the cues must be complex. I am a huge advocate of simplicity in training and in understanding. I have seen time and time again these weird affectations of body position once someone is “maneuvering.” People begin to do things that are completely inconsistent with what they have taught their horse up to this point. They end up going through the motions of what they think they should be doing to initiate the maneuver and lose track of the impact they are having on the horse. Even the most seemingly complex motion is simple in theory. This is where I encourage you to see each maneuver through the eyes of your horse.

A perfect example of this is the turn around. A spin is as simple and steering a horse’s shoulders around its hind end. If your horse is steering properly, it will turn around to the best of its athletic ability. As the horse learns to step around to each time you steer, you begin releasing the pressure and they hunt that turn around and the release of pressure they get when they cross over. People make it so complicated. Push the horse’s hip in, side pass, move one leg forward and one leg back. The most common example of this is someone is “opening the door” with their inside leg. In theory, I understand this idea, but in the application what happens is that people rock back onto their outside hip and kick their inside leg up and in front of the horse’s shoulder. This should be stopping the motion of the horse’s shoulder that direction. For me, if I move my foot forward to my horse’s shoulder, I would be asking it to move its shoulders the opposite direction, away from the pressure, or presence, of my foot. So two things are happening to the door-opening-spinner. At first, they are blocking their horse from turning that direction. Secondly, because a horse learns so quickly, the horse will begin to turn that direction despite the presence of the rider’s foot. This is deadening and diminishing the pressure/release understanding in your horse. You have started to blur the lines, and it will begin to leak into your entire training program.

I know that I preach this regularly to my clients, EVERYTHING IN HORSE TRAINING IS INTERCONNECTED. From the moment you walk into your horse’s pen to catch him, until the moment you turn him back out, you are training or un-training your horse. You must have a holistic approach to your horsemanship and training. Horses do not reason and they do not connect the dots. They are animals that react, and we are able to condition their reactions to a consistent stimulus. This is what horse training is all about. What you do loping circles affects your stops. How you approach turn arounds affects your cow work. It is crucial that you solidly grasp that your cues must be concise, decisive and most of all consistent. A cue must mean the same thing to your horse, without fail. Remember that your cues must always be based firmly on the simple concept of pressure and release.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Willfully Guided: Training through the eyes of your horse.

I have put a lot of thought into the direction that I want this program to go. Willfully Guided is the philosophy of horse/human relationship that I have developed over years of training horses and people. At its core, Willfully Guided is learning to see the world through the eyes of your horse, and utilize that knowledge in a structured and well thought out training regimen. Whether training a performance horse, or simply improving your abilities and relationship with your horse, it all starts with a solid philosophy and the understanding of some absolute truths about horses and the horse/human relationship. With this solid foundation, you are creating a mission statement of sorts. If you have a grasp of the "Why" of what you are doing, you are much more capable of having the desired result and obtaining forward motion in your training. In each moment you spend with your horse, every motion relates back to this belief system. Every drill and technique is designed with these truths in mind. This is true for all levels and disciplines of horsemanship. I believe in the ability of an individual to train their own horse, but with this comes great responsibility. It is not a venture for just anyone, and certainly not for the close minded or weak hearted. If you desire to be the horseman or woman you have always wanted to be, I invite you to come along for the ride with me. Together we can move towards the goal of having a happy, healthy, reliable, well trained horse that is on a path to reaching his full potential. I welcome your comments, questions, stories and experiences.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Investing in our Youth

Many of us started our horse experience as children. I participated in 4-H and Rodeo Events before being exposed to the working cowhorse discipline in college. As a professional, I have developed a strong group of youth clients. These girls ride 5 to 7 days a week and compete in NW and National cowhorse and reining competitions. They are responsible for the majority of the training and maintenance of their horses. With a sport as complex as working cowhorse, this is a tall order. The sport offers growth and education for all ages, but the character building experiences are especially valuable for youth participants. I am so proud of the young women they are becoming and it often causes me to reflect on the important skills and powerful life lessons they are learning through this process.
Responsibility - This is a huge financial commitment that requires hard work and dedication. Kids learn early on that their horse relies on them for everything from feed and basic care to their over all health and well being. As they move into training and competing, they learn that their horse counts on them for leadership. They have to learn to put the needs of the horse before their own.
Perserverance - Competency in performance horse sports does not come easily or quickly. It is a road dotted with disappointments, frustrations, and setbacks. Every well trained horse, or perfectly executed run comes after endless hours of practice and schooling. Thousands of circles are loped. Tears are shed. Mistakes are made, and are made again. Each day the kids learn to saddle up and treat each new ride as an opportunity. They learn that through hard work and a positive attitude they can build something special.
Problem Solving - Horse training in its most simple form is problem solving. Some horses and people come by certain things easily. Other tasks and maneuvers are harder, or more complicated. It is very rarely smooth sailing when you are learning or teaching advanced skills. When things are not going right, the kids learn to stop and assess the situation. They draw on past experiences, and reach out to their mentors to try and figure out a solution to a training problem. Editing and having awareness about what they are doing, both physically and mentally is important for forward progress. They become capable of facing life's adversities with a cool head and a sharp mind.
Humility- Unique to cowhorse competition is the variable of a cow. It is a sport where in the same show you can be a hero and a zero. No matter how talented or prepared you are, often the chips do not fall in your favor. It is important for adolescents to learn to have poise and to be humble in the face of disappointment.
Confidence- Accomplishment is something every person should feel the light of in their youth. I say that competency breeds more competency. This is also true of success. The kids learn that they have greatness in them and that if they set their mind and efforts to something, they can shine.
Perspective - Big picture thinking can be challenging in life. It is hard to mentally remove yourself from a situation enough to see things as they are. Like life, horse training and showing is a process with many ups and downs. Progress can be hard to see when you are simply looking at where you, or your horse, is currently. Appreciating the path you have taken, forgiving your mistakes, understanding where you are now, and having a plan and goals for the future are keys to success in horse training and in life.
I often tell the parents of my youth kids to think of it not as money spent on their horse, but as an well placed investment in the development of their child.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Everything I need to know I learned from my Cowhorse.

In these uncertain times, I have found that my experience training and showing cowhorses parallels life. I have been thinking a lot about happiness and success and every time I try and explain it I can liken it to a lesson learned from my horses. I reached out to my readership for their input and many of these concepts have come from their mouths as well. In the spirit of the New Year with your life and your cowhorse, keep these things in mind.

1. Perspective: Life is like the cow you draw, there are good days, ones you wish you could forget and ones you will never forget. Every time you walk in the pen, remember that you are lucky and thankful to be there, regardless of the score.
2. Timing: A good run, like a good day, is all about how you get started. If you come out of the corner late, it is hell to get caught up. You just end up chasing your cow through the rest of the run. Sometimes you have to just circle up, get out of there and think about your next run.
3. Trust: Your relationship with your horse is a partnership. Like any marriage you need trust, compassion and understanding. Both you and your horse have to trust each other and work together to make a run successful.
3. Practice is everything. If you aren't prepared when you walk in the pen, magic is not going to happen. Your commitment and time spent preparing at home is as important as the show day.
4. Talent is important, but it isn't everything. Hard work, focus and perseverance go a long way towards achieving your goals. If you want to be the best you can, you have eat, breathe and live it.
5. Risk: You have to be willing to take a few calculated risks. No one has ever become famous or successful by playing it safe. Don't be afraid to hang it out there and you may be surprised to find you are greater than you ever thought you could be.
6. Luck: Every once in a while you are gifted. Enjoy it and take advantage of it. It isn't really luck if you were there to receive it. Think of it as a reward for putting yourself out there. The same with bad luck, it happens to everyone and it isn't personal. When you fall off, dust yourself off and get back on your horse.
7. Confidence: Trust your horse, your training, your knowledge and your instinct. Believe in your horse and your ability to handle whatever comes out of the gate.
8. Focus: Never take your eye off the cow. If you keep your eye on your goal, no matter what turns life makes, you will be right there with it.
9.Courage: It is noble in life to try for something great. Whether horse or human this is the greatest of all the virtues. Heart. Sometimes you have to be brave enough to simply put your hand down and RIDE BY!
10. It's all about the ride, don't forget to enjoy it! "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." - Mae West

Monday, May 23, 2011

The difference a week makes…

Ten days ago, I was wringing my hands in frustration. I took a deep breath and changed my approach. I had The Situation turned out every day into the arena to run and blow off some steam. Normally, he gets turned out in our little bronc pen, but I started to think, maybe he was needing to stretch his legs more. For two days I watched him lapping the arena in the mornings at a dead run. He was better to ride the very first day. He was no longer looking for a fight and went loping around flicking his little ears. Sometimes even show horses need to be able to go out, cut loose and play.

I also made the decision to move him into a little leverage bit. I typically use a Billy Allen when I step a horse up. He will be shown in a smooth snaffle in the futurities, but it was time to change things up for him. Occasionally in a snaffle, even the handiest trainer can tend to get a little busy with their hands. I think that it can make colts a little cranky. I also think that it is important to switch things up to keep their minds fresh. I find that in the leverage bit, I let him pack his head more and I am lighter with my hands. It also helped me keep a little better control of his shoulders in the lead change.

The lesson to be learned here is that a few bad rides is not necessarily a set back. It is just a part of the growth process. It is your job to train unconditionally with a level head. So we are back on track, The Situation and I, and we are looking forward to getting in the showpen as soon as the horse industry is back open for business!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ups and Downs

I thought I would pull my hair out yesterday, figuratively of course. I have a very nice futurity horse, The Situation, and he has been coming along so nicely. Physically, he is big stopping, quick footed and mature; The Holy Grail of futurity prospects. He is a bit broncy and still likes to be a little cold backed most days, but always works out of it, and has only almost lawn darted me once. We had two days of heavy rain, and he was stuck inside. He is a colt who does not come back after time off as well as some and yesterday was a prime example. Broncy, despite being thrown in the bronc pen, and literally was going to give me a fight whether or not I asked for it. He spooked at the pro cutter every time we went by and was looking for any excuse to grab his butt. He felt like a 2 year old with 90 days. By the end of the hour ride we were both dripping sweat and I wasn’t sure if screaming or crying was in order. I am sure each of you has been there.

The past couple of weeks I have been going through lead changes on my pony and it has put him under a a lot of pressure. He is responding the way most colts do while going through the lead change. I am so used to him grasping everything so quickly that honestly this is the first snag we have had. I have had so many futurity horses, and experience has taught me that there is an ebb and flow to it. Each time you step your horse up in their training you are pushing their comfort zone. It is the only way to improvement, and sometimes it is not an easy task and it can feel like you have taken 2 steps back.

I love teaching people, but I think sometimes it does more for me and my training program than it does for them. I have started to learn to follow my own advice. I am constantly reminding people that horse training is a day in and day out process that has peaks and valleys. Even with the most talented horse, there will be set backs. You have to control your emotions and not allow the fact that there is a tough spot let you get frustrated. Your job as the trainer is to evaluate what your particular horse needs without emotional charge. You must constantly be editing your approach and not let one bad day, or one bad week, get you down.

Today I am going to saddle up and treat it as a new day, giving him every opportunity to rise to the occasion. If he doesn’t, I am going to remember that the best horse training happens when your horse is difficult. If everything was smooth sailing, you simply wouldn’t be getting anywhere. If it was easy, everyone would be good at it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Becoming A Good Leader - Creating a healthy horse/human relationship with your performance horse.

From the moment you enter your horse’s space each day to the time you put him back out in the field, you are either training or un-training him. Each interaction you have has an impact on his relationship with humans. There are certain truths about horses with respect to how they respond to any other creature. Natural horsemanship takes the viewpoint of using a horse’s natural instincts in a herd to make them believe that you are higher in the horsey pecking order than they are. I believe that this is a misstep. I believe that we should approach horses knowing their natural responses, but as a human developing a relationship with a horse. It is possible to work within the horse’s natural response as something other than another horse. I think this is an important distinction to make.
I am going to skip the in depth discussion of flight and fight response in horses because I think that it is pretty clearly understood. It is as simple as that a horse’s first response to a new or frightening situation is to flee. The blood shunts from their brain and organs to their muscles and they bolt. If they are cornered in an unbearable situation, they will fight until they are free enough to flee. There is a lot more to this aspect of the horse’s natural instinct, however, one of the most amazing truths about a horse is that this instinct can be numbed with the very simplest repetitive handling. One of the reasons that horses are able to be used by humans is that they take to be dominated in a relationship. I do not mean dominated in an aggressive or physical sense, I mean that more than other animals, they are willing to have a leader. We want to build on the later instinct and gradually eradicate the flight or fight response in our horses.
In performance horses, we are taking this relationship to a new level. We need to hone a horse’s natural talents and athletic ability, while still harnessing and directing it. Numbing a horse’s response to humans is no longer our goal. We want a horse to learn to respond to subtle cues; we want them to be tuned into us at all times. It now becomes even more important that you are a good leader. Keep these things in mind while you are leading your performance horse through his training.
• Trust: Your horse must have as much confidence in you as you have in him. You are not teaching your horse to do each new thing without fear. You are instilling the belief that anything you ask him to do will be safe. For your horse to be fearless in the showpen, you must never put him in a situation where he loses your trust. Be thoughtful about what you are doing. Is your horse advanced enough to be doing what you are asking of him? Is he capable of doing what you are asking, or are you putting him in a situation where he will fail?
• Focus: These sports require specific cuing and timing. You must be focused on your horse and on your job for him to be able to do his job. You are the pilot, and with that comes great responsibility. Only handle your horse for as long as you can stay engaged.
• Fairness: Structure in your program is paramount. Training a horse, in its simplest terms, is giving a cue until you get the desired response and then releasing the pressure. The horse then learns what you are asking for because they get relief when they give the correct response. As you advance in a horse’s training, this is still true, no matter how complex the maneuver. Be very cautious in your training that you are giving consistent direction. Just like with raising children, consistency and fairness in educating and discipline is key.
• Emotion: You must care for horse and what you are doing, but your emotions have no place in training. You must not allow yourself to become frustrated or angry. Likewise, you must not think you can pet and love your horse into perfection. Training horses is a process that must be followed pragmatically. Sometimes they need a firm hand, sometimes they need to be eased up on, but both instances are determined by what the horse needs to learn, not by how you are feeling about the process. You must put aside your emotions and train your horse without a charge.
• Self Examination: It is not only about your horse. As the leader in your relationship, the entire responsibility falls on you to create the situation your horse needs to thrive. You must always be honestly looking at your actions and your program and editing if needed. It is not easy to be a good leader, but if it was easy, everyone would do it!

"The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly."
— E. James Rohn

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Willing and Able

Spring is here and with it comes show season. Futurity horses are being stepped up and the cobwebs are being knocked off of the trusty showponies. I sat in the middle of my arena on my futurity horse the other day thinking about the definition of a reined horse. Both the NRHA and the NRCHA have similar definitions that touch on the description of a reined horse as one that is willfully guided, responding to the rider with little or no visible cues. These words have stuck with me and have come to hold strong meaning with regards to my training program.

I have always held a very strong belief that talented horses can be trained and allowed to perform at the highest level without compromising the well being of the animal, physically or mentally. In this blog we will delve into the process of building performance horses in a sustainable way. As riders and trainers we have a unique opportunity to have an impact on a specific animal. This is both an honor and a responsibility. I hope you will join in the discussion.

"Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire. It is a grand passion. It seizes a person whole and once it has done so, he/she will have to accept that his life will be radically changed."— Ralph Waldo Emerson