Somehow, impossibly, Jammer is seventeen.
He has always been an old soul, and now his body is catching up. His spine dips. His joints warm slowly. His mane has thinned.
This is the horse who carried me 100 miles in a day, on more than one occasion. He cleaned up for several seasons on the endurance trail. We won things. He won me.
And then, the headshaking. Strange symptoms finally coalesced into a diagnosis. I retired him early. Sadly. A piece of me retired with him.
In the years since, I've ridden him from time to time. We even top-tenned at one, last 50-miler in 2020. It was the best thing that happened, that Covid year. The worst thing happened, too, when he colicked a couple months later.
He pulled through, but I retired him for good. And he has aged. Perhaps it's being without a job, or just without enough movement.
He is sound and sane, as kind a gentleman as ever.
But the headshaking is insidious. Though managed, it causes stress. All those vertical flicks have hollowed his topline, so lovely in his prime.
I don't know how long we'll have. Probably many years, but fewer than we would, if not for that chronic syndrome.
So, I have decided. I'm going to ride Jammer regularly again. Get his body moving. And his mind. And mine.
Like many endurance horses, Jammer is tremendously experienced, but he is also perpetually green. We always focused on conditioning, not training. I hadn't yet committed to more advanced work under saddle.
It's never too late. To give us purpose and direction, I'm going to take Jammer right through all the basics. Soften him up laterally, then vertically. Practice some sidepasses and patterns. Perhaps he's up for flying changes.
To keep things interesting, I'm going to do it bareback.
Well, why not? We'll keep rides short. I'm not going to ask his high-mileage hocks for anything crazy. We'll use a nice bareback pad and a plain, old snaffle.
Besides, I could use the practice.
It'll be like learning ballroom dance with my spouse in our seventies. We'll improve our balance and strength. Exercise our hearts. While we're both still here.
I've been thinking about Bella. As I mentioned yesterday, her feet have gotten a bit sticky. Although I appreciate her level-headed, low-reactive nature, it comes with the flip side of (gasp!) laziness.
Laziness? I'm not sure that's the right word, but I'll leave it for now.
Anyway, another word with which I'm not quite comfortable -- despite having used it it capital letters in yesterday's blog -- is RESPECT. I got a good reminder last night when a friend commented on a social media post I'd shared months ago.
That post, written by Kathleen Beckham of Ethos Equine, questions whether horses are even capable of experiencing the complex, contemptuous emotion that we humans label "disrespect." She observes that horses act either out of instinct or training, including inadvertent training, and that feeling we get of the horse being disrespectful is actually a reflection of how we feel, not how the horse feels.
Some people have very negative feelings about the word "respect" as it pertains to horses. Personally, I'm not allergic to the idea. I think the problem is not so much in the word itself as in how it can influence our attitudes and behaviors.
What if, instead, we addressed (vs. attacked) the behavior (vs. problem) with a confident (vs. aggressive), teaching (vs. whip-into-shape) mindset?
In her post, Beckham writes, "I choose to replace the word 'disrespectful' with the word 'disregard' if I have to use a word for it. Many, many, many horses have found humans to be inconsistent, confusing, emotionally incongruent and unhelpful in critical ways, so they develop a 'disregard' for the human. In other words, the human is so difficult to make sense of that the horse simply dismisses them. If pushed, this horse will cycle through flight (try to get away), fight (kicking, biting, striking, pushing) and freeze (locking up)."
As trainer in my area, Dana Lovell, says, "Your horse isn't giving you a hard time; he's having a hard time."
Beckham advises labeling the horse in terms of "comfortable" or "uncomfortable," rather than assigning more complex emotions that are more likely to be our own. Framed that way, I can describe Bella as uncomfortable moving out with more energy. The word "resistant" comes to mind as well. When pushed, she tends to stall out or protest rather than speed up. This is most evident at the canter, but also true in other gaits.
Whatever you want to call it, the next question is what to do about it.
I don't want to swerve into the camp that views horses through a hyper-empathic lens and never actually makes progress because they're afraid to trod upon the horse's sovereignty as a living being. That lens, like the "disrespect" one, skews anthropomorphic.
In her podcast episode #47 on Locking and Unlocking Traits in Your Horse, Stacy Westfall says, "I think a lot of times people are afraid of intimidating the horse or patterning the horse, and...they don't allow that horse to learn that respectful foundation of following simple directions without complaining."
So there's a balance, right?
In Bella's case, I believe swift departures and energetic gaits instead of sluggishness and crowhops is a fair, simple expectation. Fine. My job is to help her to be comfortable giving that swift, energetic answer to my cues.
Taking further leaves out of books from both Clinton Anderson and Stacy Westfall, I went into today's lesson with an intention to reestablish the expectation of "move your feet now." I made sure that I raised my own physical energy and made the work both more intense and more brief than usual. It went like this:
1. Warm up (unsaddled, with halter) with the Lead Beside exercise. I chose this because it suits the theme of keeping up with my requested pace while being familiar and appropriate for a walking warmup.
2. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (unsaddled, with halter) in the round corral. I focused on transitions rather than changes of direction, particularly from trot to canter to faster canter back to trot. In the interest of keeping her physically fresh -- especially given the hot weather -- and mentally relaxed, I gave her frequent breaks while doing a bit of desensitizing, head-lowering, etc.
3. Lunging for Respect Stage 1 (saddled and bridled) in the arena. I followed the same trot-canter-fast canter-trot pattern as before, again with several rests.
4. Ridden Transitions. I hopped on and followed exactly the same pattern from the saddle, for a total of maybe 10 minutes. Maybe even less. This was all about moving the established expectation from groundwork into ridden work, letting her succeed, then quitting while she was in a good place.
Overall, it went well! Bella still had a touch of resistance under saddle, but much less than before. I think she even had a little fun with the fast canter part, which isn't something I'd encouraged until now.
Here's what's interesting: I don't think the mechanics of the training session -- that is, what we actually did -- would have changed depending on the word I used to describe Bella's behavior (disrespect, discomfort, disregard, resistance, whatever). However, I do think the attitude with which I approached the session benefitted from giving the words some thought. I arrived as a teacher, not a dictator. Bella surely knows the difference.
We'll keep at it over the weekend and see how things go. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on RESPECT...or any other name?
I can't believe this, but... I have an arena!!!!!!!
Anyone who has been to my place knows that I have five acres on a hill. The only two level spots are just big enough for my house and my round corral. Everything else is on a slope -- and it's not a slight grade, either.
For most purposes, the slope is fine. It's the reason we have a beautiful view, and the horses (not to mention the people) get great exercise trudging up and down it all the time. But for training? Ehhhhh, not so much.
You might recall that I'm using the Downunder Horsemanship (DUH) Method to train Bellalunaa and Ledger. I managed to get a good start on Bella with just the round corral and trail riding on the canal banks, but let's face it: there are some DUH exercises that you simply can't do in a small corral, on a narrow dirt road, or on or a slope with questionable footing.
So, after about 16 years here, I finally did it. I hired someone to level part of the pasture for a 90 x 120-foot arena. It was quite a project!
It's hard to tell from the photos, but that's about a 12-foot carve-out at the top of the hill and nearly that much of a drop-off outside the arena fence on the downhill side. Wowza.
But let me tell you: Game. Changer.
It has only been done for four days, and our summer afternoons are too hot to work horses hard, so I've had time for just two training sessions in there with each horse.
Prior to the arena project, Bella had progressed to Intermediate riding and groundwork exercises, but to get there, we had to skip or half-ass a few Fundamentals. Now that we have proper facilities, I'm taking her back through everything.
Predictably, I've found a few holes -- most notably, sticky feet. Not outright refusal to move forward, but sluggishness. Especially as she gets tired, Bella gets grouchy about being asked to move out. She's even crow hopped a few times when she thinks it's time to quit cantering during the Cruising Lesson.
Sigh. It's always disheartening to have a horse come along so well, then have to go back and patch holes. At least, that's my initial, emotional reaction -- but not a particularly helpful or necessary one. I'm reminding myself that this is a normal part of the training process and there's no shame in taking as many steps back as necessary to build a stronger foundation. Refusing to move out, even to the point of crow hopping? Spotlight on R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
For the record, I did ponder whether this issue could have a physical origin. However, I think that is unlikely. Bella has been in regular work plus hilly pasture turnout for months, and I think her fitness level is appropriate. Her back isn't sore. Her legs remain cool and tight. She is sound and free-moving both under saddle and at liberty. I'm pretty sure this issue is all about attitude.
I spent some time thinking it over, and I figure groundwork is the place to start. We'll do a bunch of Lunging for Respect I & II, with a particular focus on moving out NOW when asked. (Throwback to the Bucking a Bad Habit NWC video from March 2012!) Bella knows this stuff, but it's obviously time for a reminder.
It's also a good reminder to me of the importance of continuing to review and build on groundwork, including lots of backing, bending, yielding, etc. as part of every session. It's so easy to get lax on requiring snappy responses, especially when I'm in a hurry or feeling worn out by the heat. But you know how horses are...always learning...and whether they learn the right thing or the wrong thing is up to us.
Ready, Bella? Let's make it right.
Want to know what happened next? Go to Respect By Any Other Name.
Thanks in part to fuel prices, my summer plans have adapted to focus on training, rather than competing. Ledger is well-positioned to continue physical conditioning while broadening his training, and Bellalunaa is just blossoming from blank-slate status.
I have time for a solid session with one horse nearly every day. Sometimes, I can fit in a second lesson with the other horse, even if it's just a quick one focused on a single exercise. Alternating between horses is working pretty well for everyone.
Making it happen, of course, involves flexibility. I'm presently exploring:
I'm also training with a more deliberate strategy than I've used previously. I'm working through the Downunder Horsemanship Method. I'm watching the videos and applying the exercises, in order, as best I can without complete facilities. (What I'd give for an arena, some days!)
I know Clinton Anderson isn't for everyone. He isn't even for me, a lot of the time. I like his earlier work, such as one finds in the classic training series. His more recent "ego-tude," as I call it, rubs me the wrong way -- but that doesn't make his Method invalid.
I do think there’s risk associated with applying a canned method to every horse. Rote application of prescribed exercises regardless of the individual will work...sometimes. Other times, it'll just piss the horse off.
Clinton acknowledges that "feel" is important, and I think he means more than just the appropriate timing of a release. I'm pretty sure he means that each horse should be approached thoughtfully, by a trainer as willing to learn as she is to teach. It seems to me that the exercises can (and should) be applied somewhat differently depending on each horse's physical, mental, and emotional status both overall and during a particular session.
Anyway, I'm pleased to be learning the Method properly after having been exposed to it in bits and pieces for years. Ledger is the second horse who has come to me after being started in this way, and I must say I like the solid foundation and clear "buttons" it puts on a horse. It's a good fit for me right now.
For those of you who are familiar with the Method and interested, here's where we are:
Bellalunaa is a little more than halfway through Intermediate on groundwork. She's almost done with Fundamentals under saddle. Her strong points are retention (seriously, she has the most amazing retention!) and softness. We're still working on a tendency to crowd into me when sending or circle driving outside the round corral, as well as picking up her hind feet.
I don't have an arena (or any land flat enough to create one), so we do all our work either in the round corral or on the trail. Around home, "trail" means mostly rural roads and canal banks. It's not always ideal, but if we let that stop us, we'd never progress at all.
It's gratifying to watch both horses improve day over day, and I have no doubt that all this work will pay off when we get back on the endurance trail!
Thanks for dropping by! I'm an endurance rider in the northwest region of the United States. This blog explores the mental, physical, and technical aspects of being a better horseman, athlete, and human.
The Sweaty Equestrian