Friday, July 10, 2009

Black and White

When I say black and white many of you (being the good horsey folk you are) immediately think of Paints.

Lately, for me, black and white have begun to mean positive and negative, action and stillness, presence and absence.

I have discussed an experiment on my blog, Mugwump Chronicles, where I am working with a colt I have owned since birth.

I am trying to teach him in a way that is effective enough that I only have to teach it once.
No drilling, no repetition, once he learns it, I assume he understands it.

I am very aware that repetition will come into his life simply because he needs it to strengthen himself physically and mentally for where I want to take him.

Plus, I'm pretty sure I'm not a good enough trainer to make it to a NRCHA derby without having to show him something more than once.

But I'm sure going to try.

At this point he leads, ties, picks up his feet, loads in a trailer, gives his nose when I put pressure on him and backs a step. He's just two. So he does everything I need him to for his age.

I spend a lot of time thinking of my next step, because I always want it to be related to the last and to set me up for the next.

Sometimes it's a month or two before I think through my next step. Because there is such a gap in my handling of my little guy I have been worried it would have a negative effect on his training.

I have been surprised to find it has, if anything, enhanced it. When I walk into the horses on pasture he watches me closely. When I look back at him he drops his head and turns to the side. It doesn't matter if I skip past him for weeks at a time, this is still the friendly, welcoming response I get.

When I do go to pet him or catch him he is interested and willing to go with me. I almost think the wait in between sessions works him as much as the actual handling time. I haven't bored him. He hasn't shut me out from a lack of understanding or too much repetition. I haven't given him any bad habits from a lack of focus on my part either.

So my negative space becomes as much a tool as my positive.

It's really making me think. What I'm not doing is every bit as important as what I am.

Here's an example of my thoughts.

Most horses lean into the rider as she mounts. Not a lot, he just sets his inside foot and braces to support himself as she gets up.

No big deal, right?

When I work a horse I am very insistent he learns to curl his body away from me. He needs to keep his shoulder and rib away from me. I do this as a safety measure and as beginning lessons in foot placement. If my horse curls away correctly he also crosses his feet correctly for future turns and lateral work.

I also want my horse prepared to move away at any time out of respect for my position. I've learned through hard experience that a horse who leans or pushes on me is being rude and it will effect our whole trainer/trainee relationship unless I stop it.

So what am I teaching my horse when I let him lean into me as I mount? I'm not sure, but it has to be a confusing cross signal at best.

When I worked for the Big K he didn't put up with a lot of leaning over their back, practicing putting weight in the stirrup or repeats of stepping up and down. He would put the saddle on a young horse, let him stand tied all day for several days and then prepare them to ride.

He would let me pony a colt, lean over it, rub on it and bang on the saddle but he didn't want me hanging off it's side.

When it was time to get on I tipped the colts nose, put my foot in the stirrup, stood up and immediately balanced over the middle of the colt. Once the colt would tolerate me I stood up, hesitated and threw my leg over.

I asked him once why he did it that way and he said, "I don't want you hanging with your head over the side of a colt when he blows. Besides, they're just 'feelier' this way."

When I went out on my own I went back to my old way. Putting my weight in the stirrup and gradually working my way onto the horse.

It went easier, the youngsters were better prepared when I got on and I felt I was doing a better job.

Except I had leaning colts again. I was creating a stiffening of the inside shoulder and rib. Which I had to work out again in order to begin training.

I hate it when he's right. The colts we stood over, then rode, were balancing briefly on the outside to support us. They moved away in order to get ready for us to mount. I'm not talking feet moving, just where their weight went as we got on.

So there was a consistency in expectations. I wasn't unconciously encouraging the very behavior I work so hard to eliminate.The young horse is learning again to keep his shoulder clear of the rider. That's where K was getting his "feelier." Hey, the guy's a trainer, not a communicator.

My thought here is, if I'm not unconsciously creating a lean in my colt, by repeatedly stepping up and down, or hanging off him, my training will be much more effective, simpler and clear. And I won't have to repeat myself.

By sitting back and doing nothing until I am sure my next step only builds, doesn't confuse, I am still going to end up with a competitive colt in time for the derbies. My negative space will only give both of us time to think. I hope.


Laura Crum said...

I am going to be fascinated to hear how your "experiment" works out with Leland. Keep updating us, OK?

HorsesAndTurbos said...

Hmmm..dismounting, too. I use a block to get on and when I dismount, I take my foot out of the stirrup, swing over, put my weight over my mare's back, kick out the other stirrup, then slide down. I started that because I was wearing the wrong boots and first, and now continue. She stands until I am on the ground (and on both sides, too).

Interesting, too...I have a harder time getting her to turn on her forehand in a circle with pressure from my stronger...leg. That's the side she's been mounted on all the time from the ground before I owned her.


mugwump said...

Laura-It interests me too. The trick is to not end up with a 10 year old barely broke thing on my hands.
HorsesandTurbos- See? I hadn't even thought about the dismount....

Maryannwrites said...

Interesting post. The more I visit this site the more I realize I don't know about training. I think I have a 12 year old barely broke thing on my hands. :-)

It's time to invest in some training for him and for me.

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and as for the stepping toward you, Sunny, my trail horse (who I did not train) loves to play that game. While I groom him on the left he constantly tries to step his left front foot towards my foot (side he is mounted on). On the right side he plays the game of tipping his nose off to the left (such that if he chose, he could jerk the rope out of my hand--I hold him while I groom and saddle--its just the most convenient.) I have to admit, I find it amusing. We are both playing the game. I ignore him until he steps a little too close to my foot, then I kick him hard in the fetlock. He behaves. On the right side, I tip his nose back to me a few times, then give him a good hard jerk. He behaves. Then, when cinching, we have the nipping gesture at my arm. Again, I ignore until he gets too close and then I whale on him. Bear in mind, this horse has never once stepped on me, bit me, or jerked the rope out of my hands. When I go to catch him, he will occasionally threaten to kick. I whale on him, of course. He behaves (and no, he doesn't get hard to catch). As I said, we are both playing the game. He has never kicked me, or even come close. Do I wish he were more respectful? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. Its his cocky little attitude that helps him be so tough minded on the trail. Nothing bothers him. He's a tough little guy. As long as I keep my sense of humor his dominance games are more amusing than annoying. However, this is because I never feel threatened. And he never, ever gets to win. And I am glad I wasn't the one who had to train this horse. I have a feeling he was a challenge.

I never really thought about the horse bracing to hold you up when you get on (should have, I guess). I was always taught to put my foot in the stirrup and swing up onto the horse's back in one motion, as quick as I could, the idea to be sitting in the middle and upright, so that I was ready to handle whatever happened next. I still mount this way, by habit, though I can only manage it on shorter horses.

mugwump said...

Laura, the way you mount is exactly what I'm talking about. That's the right way, even on the first ride. It's the hanging on them to get them used to me that was balling things up. Once I started getting them used to me by sitting over them on a fence or a horse it all went away.

littledog said...

How cool about "negative space!" I was a computer grapics/art major back in the 80's, and my degree was obslete for a career, even before I completed it.
When it comes to horses it makes more universal sense. Lean on and mount your horse from both sides equally. Surprise him sometimes by dismounting from the side he's not used to.

Laura Crum said...

Yes, that's what I was taught. Pony the colt from another horse and lean over him and shake the saddle to get him used to you being above him. And you could stand next to him and jerk the stirrups a little with your hand, so they popped and slapped and tugged at the horse. It was also OK to put your foot up in the stirrup without putting weight in it and then put it down again. But the guys that taught me all insisted that once you put weight in that stirrup, you needed to get right up as smoothly and quickly as you could, and be sitting upright on the horse. You might not have your right stirrup, but you had the horn and your balance and you had a chance of staying with the horse. I'm not sure this method was even aimed at keeping the horse from bracing for your weight--if it was, I missed that part. It was more aimed at staying on and not scaring the colt.

KD said...

Interesting.... it works later on as well. After I lost some weight and learned how not to use the cantle to help pull myself up, I am able to mount much more smoothly without pulling my horse towards me. I have also made it a habit to dismount on the right.

FD said...

Ooooh. Now that's a really interesting one. I don't like to faff with them much before getting on, because I had a horse to restart once that had had someone spend ages with the prep and the hanging over bit. It went well, up to where she got bored, pulled away, the leaner went kersplat under her, got all tangled in her legs, and cue all sorts of drama. When they got back to trying to get on her she was thoroughly off the whole idea.

Besides, I find that if you handle them properly on the ground it's not the sitting on them / being above them bit that's likely to set them off, it's when they start moving with the rider and the additional weight throws off their balance. Also, if they are going to act up, I'd far druther be actually in the saddle than hanging over the middle trying to stay on. I know some people prefer it, saying it's easier to bail out, but frankly I don't want to bail out and I really don't want the horse to get the idea it can make me bail out.

I hadn't thought about the whole bracing thing, although I'll note I have it as a mental flag in that horses that move into you as you're mounting tends to be of the more resistant type. Food for thought.
Although it's for different reasons, I teach all mine to mount / dismount from either side, which would help prevent the onesidedness the HosesAndTurbos describes.
I also don't ever dismount with a foot in the stirrup. (If you learn to ride in England, it's considered hugely verboten!) Both feet out of stirrups, hands to the wither, swing a leg over the cantle of the saddle, pushing away from the horse, land on both feet a foot or so away from the horse.

gtyyup said...

I read this today and thought of you and this article.

The article is written by and for barefoot horses, but I thought it was interesting how this particular horse of his does best by not doing much in the practice pen.