The Mugwump/Big K Clinic: Purpose Makes Sense to Horses
OMG, he was going to rear.
I hate rearing horses. I hate them. It scares me worse than anything. I hate them. I hate them, I hate them, I hate them, I hate them. And now I own one.
Caspian danced at the edge of the mud, head high and unbalanced on an unnaturally tense neck, weight rocked back on his heels, jaw locked against the bit. We were "trapped". We'd come down a hill, there were small banks on either side, and the only way across was through a marshy mud puddle that might have been a creek a few weeks back.
It was supposed to be a Montana cattle roundup, but at this point it had turned into a Montana Mud Mexican Standoff. Caspian flat out told me there was zero chance of him setting foot into that horse-eating muck... and to make matters worse, he was beginning to freak out about everyone riding away from us. I saw the last horse disappear around the corner, and the cold nerves in my stomach went from a slithering worm of fear to a thrashing mass of hissing rattle snakes.
I tried to think calm thoughts. I was in Montana. I was on my horse. It was a beautiful day. I was at the clinic, and I was on a cattle ranch in Montana, and I was on my horse, and all I had to do was not force him, not let my body stiffen up with my nerves, and just keep him calmly pointed towards where the other horses disappeared, and...
Caspian's sideways dancing jig slowed as he shook his head and lifted his front hooves off the ground - controlled and frustrated, not very high, but still a rear.
I tried to think happy thoughts, but my brain wasn't having any part of it.
Do you remember? Do you remember what it looked like when you went down to the Santa Anita racetrack to watch the Thoroughbreds exercise, and that one jockey you'd spent all morning chatting with rode that one colt- what was his name? ImAPlayboy? And even though the jockey did nothing and was perfectly balanced, the horse flipped over on top of him with no warning, and broke his back and pelvis right in front of you?
I was in Montana. I was on a horse. I was supposed to be having fun, dangit. It was a stupid, 10 foot mud crossing. I did not drive 1,000 miles just to get nervous about a stupid, 10 foot mud crossing, on a mellow 8 year old horse. Pull yourself together, Becky. Just relax - you're making it worse. It was easy. Simple. How hard could it be? Tighten the knees, loose calves, sit down in your seat, loose reins - keep him pointed towards it but don't transmit any tension... Think happy thoughts.... Montana... sky.... happy thoughts....
Caspian jigged again and then leaned back, front hooves coming even further off the ground.
At what point does it become a rear? Sh*t. You own a rearing horse. SH*T. You can't just get off and not ride him again. You have to fix this. Do you remember Dom? Remember how that one horse flipped over on her and broke her leg? She's ten times stickier of a rider than you'll ever be. If a jockey and Dom can get hurt with a rearing horse, what chance do you have? You're going to die. Or be paralyzed. He's going to lift up, and you're going to panic, and you're going to pull the reins sideways, and his hind legs are going to slip out from under him and he's going to crash back on top of you. And you're too slow, and too fat, and too unbalanced to ever get out of the saddle in time.
Think happy thoughts. Calm. Don't let him spin around - just keep him forward - CRAP, he's trying to rear again. Why didn't I stick with the main group on the way out to get the cows? I would have had to cross this then, and we would have had company, and he would have followed the other horses, and it would have been easy.
But noooooo. I had to try to tag along with Tim and Janet, and now I've discovered my horse doesn't like water or mud at the same time everyone's gone and left us, and I can't exactly call out for someone to come back, because that's just stupid. First I can't lope, and now I can't cross a patch of mud, and can I really be this inept? I can't act like a stupid, California city girl and yell for someone to come back just because it's a mud puddle, and I can't get down because then Caspian will think all he has to do is jig for me to get off, and SH*T THERE HE GOES AGAIN - I think that's totally a rear, even if it does feel balanced, SH*T I OWN A REARING HORSE. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO...
"Hey there." Tim appeared suddenly from around the bend, relaxed and loose in the saddle as he headed straight back to us.
I was so relieved I could have cried. I wasn't the only one. At the sight of the other horse returning, Caspian's weight redistributed itself more firmly on all four hooves, and his head lowered a tiny degree. He still jigged, but not nearly with the same level of frenzy, and I could feel the relief pouring off of him, too.
"Everyone's just heading off, and it can be scary," Tim said, blue eyes staring into mine, willing me to be calm.
Wait, is he talking about it being scary for the horse, or for me? Can he tell how scared I am? I must look so stupid, obviously terrified on top of a totally easy-going gelding, while he's guiding this little 2 or 3 year old colt through the hills and mud with only his knees.
I don't care. I was scared. Am scared. Sh*t, what am I going to do about owning a rearing horse? I don't care if he feels balanced, it's still a rear. I'm so glad Tim noticed I was missing and came back. Seriously, I could kiss this man. I would bear his children. Wait, he's married. Wait, so am I. Well, I didn't mean it that way anyways. Besides, I hate being pregnant, but that's the point. Maybe I'd just do the surrogacy thing. Him coming back means that much to me. You know, if he needed a surrogate, like if he and his wife have some kind of fertility issues. Do they? Wait, don't they have kids? I can't remember. And what the heck, that's none of my business. I'm just so, so relieved Caspian's not rearing, and that someone came back for me. I've never loved anyone more than I love this man, right here, right now, for not stranding me here with my new rearing horse. I would do his laundry for a year, that's how much I love him. Also, that sounds better. I should tell him that, instead of the "carrying his baby" thing. That just sounds weird. It sounds kind of sexual ,and I don't mean it that way at all. I like his wife. She seems awesome, and she's totally sexy, and she cooks way better than I ever could. No wonder he married her. Holy crap, I'm not even talking out loud and I'm rambling. I should just shut my mouth and wave at him. Wait, I need both hands on the reins. Nod. I'll just nod at him instead.
I nodded at Tim.
Tim eased the little mare next to mine, and both Caspian and I relaxed further.
"It's the scariest thing in the world to be left behind," he said.
I ducked my gaze away and tried to force my stiff body to mimic his relaxed slouch. This time I was pretty sure he was directing the sentence at both Caspian and me, but I didn't care. I had felt a little bit like a panicking horse when I saw the rest of the riders trotting easily away, as I was stuck behind with my problem child - who probably wasn't even that bad of a problem. Man, I hated being out of shape and awkward in the saddle again. Man, I was so glad he came back. Man, I really, really, really would do that man's laundry for an entire year.
"Got any tips on how to get him across?" I tried to sound nonchalant, offhand, but I'm pretty sure I sounded as desperate as I felt. Please help me figure out a way to get him across without him wanting to rear.
And that's when it got cool.
Do you guys remember reading that one blog post from Mugwump, about how she gets horses to go over something they don't want to? I'm still trying to find it (if you can find it before me, can you shoot me the link?) She talked about how you work them in front of the object, and only let them rest when they're facing the object, so it becomes a happy place, instead of a scary place?
I remember reading it and thinking, "Boy, I bet that works!" and mentally filing it away under "Things I will try once I have a horse". Of course, as soon as I needed it I totally forgot about it. Apparently my brain's filing cabinet is actually just a big paper shredder. Thanks, brain.
Anyways, long story short, I did it. I totally lived out a blog post, in real life, learning a training tip that I'd read about on a blog I liked, long before I ever knew Mugwump was a woman named Janet, and the whole time I did it, I did it under the watchful eye of the Big K, beneath the blue Montana sky.
If that was the only thing I'd done the entire weekend, that alone would have been worth the price of admission. (Note: I had four or five other huge AHA! moments that weekend, some with Mugwump, some with the Big K, some just by watching other people on their horses, so I would definitely say I more than got my money's worth.)
So, for non-horsey people, I'm going to "dumb" this down a bit and use less technical terms.
Here was my old way of dealing with a horse that didn't want to cross something:
- Horse balks, throwing on the brakes and screeching to a halt. It could be anything - a scary dog behind a fence, a plastic bag flapping in the wind, a bit of menacing shrubbery. For the sake of argument, let's pretend the horse is balking at a scary, scary stream crossing.
- I make sure I have no pressure on the reins, and use my legs to urge the horse forward.
- The horse continues to balk, and at this point usually tries to turn around and leave the scary situation.
- I don't let the horse turn around. I use my legs to block the horse from turning away from scary object, and use the reins to keep the horse's head pointed towards the scary object. I continue to urge the horse forward. It's still early in the argument, so I'm probably just squeezing and using my heels a bit.
- The horse takes a slight step forward. I stop squeezing with my legs and say "Gooood" in a calm voice while patting the neck.
- Horse thinks about it a second, then realizes: NOPE. Not worth it. Being "Gooood" is not worth dying a terrible, painful, bloody death by "scary, scary stream" and tries to spin around and flee.
- I do not let the horse spin around - or if they start the spin and I'm too late to catch it, I just spin them back until they're facing it. Begin upping the "pressure" - louder clucks, firming heels, etc - keeping pressure off the reins unless it's to keep the horse facing forward. Any forward movement is rewarded by a release of pressure, and any attempt to leave means the pressure increases.
- The horse, feeling trapped and claustrophobic by the scary, scary stream in front of it, and the mean, mean pressure from my increasingly forceful cues to go forward begins to dance and jig from side to side. Or, in Caspian's case, they go up (rear). Jubilee used to escape backwards - he'd face the scary, scary object and just bolt backwards at 100 million miles an hour, not caring what was behind him. That was always fun. Horses can be such a blast to ride, sometimes.
- Eventually I win - I'm more stubborn, the horse gives in to both my cues and the relief that comes from the "release" and we cross.
Here is why I love my new and improved Montana system so well: When my horse is facing a fearful situation... why create more fear/anxiety/frustration? That's just going to get in the way of learning.
Here is what Tim walked me through with Caspian:
The only caveat was that I was not allowed to him take a breather in any direction except facing the mud, and if Caspian showed any hesitation on his own while facing the mud, I was to immediately let him take a break.
We must have done 10-15 rollbacks in a row without a single stop. That may not be a lot for a well-muscled horse, but it was certainly taxing on Caspian. They were good rollbacks, too - Big K was giving me pointers on how to get him to follow through, and how to cue him better. It literally felt like an arena lesson, only it was taking place on a churned-up, narrow cow trail.
And the thing was, with something else to concentrate on, and with the feeling of success on each rollback, both Caspian and I relaxed and unclenched our buttholes (Dude - it's crass, but you know exactly what I'm talking about.)
"Let him rest now," Tim said, one or two turns before Caspian was going to become sluggish.
I pointed Caspian at the mud hole, and let him breathe. He took a few breaths, and then noticed where he was standing, and began to tense up.
"Work him some more," came Tim's voice from behind me, a moment before I was going to cue him on my own.... but I guess that's why one of us is paying to attend clinics, and the other one giving them. On a side note - another interesting thing I learned at the clinic came from listening to Tim and Janet and realizing just how "off" my timing was for corrections and release was.
I worked him again, and almost immediately I could feel Caspian roll his eyes. Rollbacks? he seemed to say. Aren't you tired of those yet? Because I sure am.
We did a few more of them before Tim called for me to stop him. This time, Caspian stood easily, a bit out of breath, his front hooves actually sinking a bit in the mud without him even noticing.
"See if he'll go forward - if he starts to turn away, go back to more rollbacks."
I asked Caspian to move forward with my legs, and I felt him consider it for a moment, right up until he realized he was actually touching the mud with his front hooves. Omg, it's gonna eat me!
I used his horror and turned him into a neat little rollback, and went back to work. I could feel him rolling his eyes as he forgot about the yawning mudpit of doom and became bored and slightly irritated with the constant maneuvering. Dude. The rollbacks are getting old. Why are you so obsessed with this maneuver?
This time, three sets of rollbacks in, he asked to stop. I felt it beneath me - a slight hesitation as he faced the stream, a questioning slowing of his movement, so I turned him towards the mud and let him breathe.
"Good," Tim said in a quiet voice, and I found myself feeling absurdly pleased at the small bit of praise. Caspian lowered his head, sniffing and snorting at the mud, trembling slightly underneath me. I felt him rock backwards slightly, preparing to flee, and I settled my seat, reaching to gather the reins so I could ask him to do more rollbacks.
Woman, you have GOT to be kidding me. No. NO. No more rollbacks - I am so, SO sick of that stupid thing you're so obsessed with. You will not make me do another one of those stupid maneuvers.
Caspian's a quiet horse, but when he's disdainful, you can feel it surging up from underneath you in a deafening roar. Sensing my intentions, he stepped forward into the mud before I could ask him to work some more. He quivered beneath me the entire way, snorting and blowing and trembling with nerves, but once he took that first step he crossed it without a single complaint.
All joking aside... it's hard to explain how eye-opening the whole scenario was for me. I don't have to fight with my horse. I really don't.
I know that may sound overly elementary to some of you, but when I was learning to ride horses, somehow I ended up with the mindset that I had to "win". If a horse balks, be more stubborn, and force them over, force them past. Don't give in. Don't lose. It's for their own good.
And the thing is... it doesn't have to be like that at all. You always hear "Make the wrong choice hard, and the right choice easy," but to have it work so easily, with so little fight.... for the first time ever, it just really sunk in.
I don't have to fight Caspian... and in the 11 months I've owned him, I haven't had a single fight with him. Not once. Do you have any idea how crazy that is to me?
We'd been inside for almost two hours before I realized that Caspian was nervous about the entrance to the arena - something about the mix of bright and shadows was making him uncomfortable, and even though he was doing a great job "cutting" the plastic cow on a string, when we would approach that side of the arena his canter would transform from practical into a beautiful, lofty, very high thing. I'm sure it was gorgeous to look at, it felt really cool to ride, and I'm sure it would have made a dressage instructor drool.... but it made me uneasy.
Instead of turning to follow the cow, I whoa'd Caspian, and turned to face Tim and Mugwump.
"I have a question."
"Well, I know he isn't really spooking right now, but it kind of ties into that semi-rearing thing he did with me at the mud. He doesn't like this side of the arena. And he still canters toward it, but I can feel him getting really light in the front end because he doesn't want to be over here, and it just makes me really uncomfortable. I feel like it's a baby step in the rearing direction, and I'd like to just make him quit before I even start. It's not like I've got any real pressure on the reins blocking him. I'm not sure what the best way to handle it is."
"Well, do you need to be over on that side of the arena?"
Huh? I blinked at Tim a few times before answering. "Uh... I guess not?"
"Well, then, there you go. Don't go over there." Tim nodded once, as if everything had been answered.
"Uhh.... But...." But Tim, that's kind of the most confusing, obviously wrong answer I've ever heard in my entire life... "But Tim, doesn't that, you know, let him 'win'?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I've just.... Well, you know how you're always asking us 'how would we do it'? Well, if I were home, and this was happening, I would take Caspian over to that corner, and just force him to do his work in it until he got over whatever was bothering him. Just... just kind of make him stay there until he wasn't nervous anymore."
"Well, if you don't really need to go over there, then I say don't make him."
"But.... but why? I just don't understand how that's the right answer. It seems like I would be letting him win - that he would learn that trying to avoid an area results in me avoiding it."
"If it were important for you to work over there, then yeah, I would say you need to make him go over there. But you said it yourself - you don't need to be in that part of the arena. The thing is, if you come in here, day after day, and just work on the things you need to work on, and ignore whatever's making him nervous about that area... well, eventually you'll come in one day, and realize it's not a problem anymore. He'll have worked through it on his own, and it won't be an issue. There's no sense fighting him over something that's not important - he'll pick it up on his own along the way. You'd be surprised."
Guys, I really hope that makes as much sense to you as it does to me - and if it doesn't, and if you want to "get it" better, ask me a question in the comments and I'll try to explain again.... because this has been the most absolutely life-changing thing about the way I'm interacting with horses.
I mean, in the spirit of complete honesty, at the time I heard it, I disagreed with what Tim was saying. Sure, that method would work, if I was ever going to come back to this barn. And sure, that might work if we were all on horseback 8 hours a day with a velcro seat, and we didn't get nervous when horses started to act up.... but it seemed like a useless approach for someone like me.
Still - I paid good money for the clinic, so I wasn't about to just ignore the advice I'd paid to receive. I did what he asked - stopped concentrating on that half of the arena, stopped mentally willing Caspian to move into it, and stopped caring when his canter got all airy and lofty and dude-if-my-hind-legs-were-still-this-would-be-a-Lipizzaner-rear.
And you know what? Somewhere in the middle of that rainy morning.... Caspian quit caring about the doorway.
It was the weirdest darn thing I'd ever had happen - and again, I really, REALLY credit my horse and his big, calm brain for allowing me to make all of these mental breakthroughs. A flightier, stupider horse wouldn't have taken five giant mental steps for every single tiny shuffle that I made that weekend.... but Caspian did, and because of that, I've been able to have epiphany after epiphany with him.
I've had a couple of months to chew on what I think Tim was trying to say, and I've bounced the idea off of Mugwump and she agrees with my interpretation.
Ignoring the door and Caspian's lack of forward movement wasn't "letting him win" - it was just... just not arguing with him over stupid, small stuff. Did I need to go over to the doorway to accomplish my goals? No? Then it didn't matter - why argue with him unless it really mattered? Sure I could have made him do it in the end, but I should only "force" him if it really matters, and not fight over useless stuff, just to prove I can "win".
And the beautiful thing is, CASPIAN UNDERSTANDS THIS PREMISE. I don't know when I became aware of it, but somewhere along the way, as we built our relationship - and as I explored this "don't butt heads" way of approaching a horse... Caspian told me he understood the rules.
It was kind of funny, in a way, because I didn't even realize I was giving him rules until he told me he understood them.
A couple of weeks ago we were out on the trails at our new barn. There's never anybody there to ride with me, so both Caspian and I are learning how to ride out on the trails, away from any signs of houses or fences or anything, with only each other for company.
Both of us were pretty unnerved by this idea at first, not that we're 100% comfortable yet, or anything. I actually tried approaching it in a different way that I got from a book, and it seems to have worked... but that will have to be another post, because this one's already stupidly long.
Anyways, our new trails are several hundred acres of rolling cattle pasture - and once you "cross the creek and go through the gate", you are on public land - or at least land that belongs to some giant logging company (or something) who doesn't mind if we ride on it.
I swear this creek is mythical, because I still haven't found it yet. On the day in question I had about three hours before work so I decided to find the creek to see if Caspian remembered his rollbacks lesson. Despite surviving an entire Oregon winter, he's still a little iffy about certain types of mud, and I haven't had any chance at all to work on water crossings yet.
We threaded our way through the hills, him a little uncertain but walking calmly on a loose lead. We made our way up a hill, then up a road, before we arrived at a flat muddy road-type area about a football field or more in length that was churned up by countless, fresh cow hoof prints.
Well... the road was wide, and obviously well-traveled by cows... and it sloped downwards.... there was probably a creek at the bottom? (Spoiler: it totally wasn't.)
Still - I eyed the mud dubiously. I could feel Caspian underneath me doing the same. I had no idea how deep it was, but it looked bad, so I decided to get off and lead him through it (it's part of my "training a solo trail horse" thing I'm doing - lots of leading in uncertain situations until we're both comfortable alone.)
I got off and began to slip, and slide through a couple hundred yards of the slimiest, suckiest clay ever. At one point I sank down so deep that the pooled water on the top of the mud began pouring down into my boot. Man, that's a nasty feeling. I even lost my boot twice in the sticky, slimy mess and had to take a step backwards for it.
I thought about turning back, but by that time I was more than halfway through, and I figured there had to be another way around this mud pit so I never had to go through it again.
Caspian followed me respectfully as I edged my way through there - the two of us sliding like Bambi as we made our way through, the lead rope loose and his nose about a foot or two behind my shoulder. He's good as gold when I'm on the ground leading him, and has been for some time. We got to the bottom and I began to look around for another way out.
An hour later I'd bumped into every single fence the farmer must have had, some of it serving no other visible purpose than to keep me from getting back to the barn. I was annoyed, and frustrated, and worried about getting to work on time....
I mean, don't get me wrong. I could point which way the barn was, but I had no idea how to actually get back there. I'd criss-crossed so many times I couldn't remember the way I came in. Every hill I climbed seemed to dead end in barbed wire. I was hot, and sweaty, and really out of breath, because somewhere along the way I'd gotten so involved in searching that I'd literally forgotten to mount back up on my horse. Caspian follows on a completely loose lead, so several times I actually forgot I was even leading him and would spin around and almost bump into him as I marched back down the hill, frustrated and muttering.
Eventually, I gave up. I knew where home was. I knew where we were. I just didn't know how to actually get back there.
"Alright," I said, as I led Caspian over to a stump and heaved myself back up into the saddle. "Your turn."
It took only a few steps before he realized I was letting him decide the path, and he turned around and made a beeline straight for the barn.
"It's not going to work," I said in a sulky tone. "There's a stupid fence up there."
Either Caspian didn't speak English or he decided to ignore me, because he continued marching on, with pricked ears and a happy expression. Hooray! We're finally going home, where there are other horses and no mud or wolves lurking in the shadows.
He reached the top of the hill and stopped short, staring intently at the fence in front of him for a few moments as he flicked his ears.
"See? I tooooold you there was a fence."
Proving once again that he's more mature than I am, Caspian ignored me and turned around to head back down the hill in another direction.
A few turns later I recognized where he was taking us- we were heading straight back to the ugly mud pit. I hadn't wanted to cross it again... but I'd told Caspian he could choose the route home, and he probably remembered what lay there, so I decided to let him. Besides, I needed to be in my car in 40 minutes if I was going to make it to work on time, and we were rapidly running out of time.
He walked calmly to the edge of the stretch and stood for a moment, catching his breath from the long trek up the hill.
I sat quietly on top of him, to see what he would do. After a few moments he lowered his head and blew on the mud, nostrils flaring as he snorted quietly. And then he just stepped into it.
I mean, to understand what this really means, you have to know that I never once worked on Caspian's phobia of mud. There were a couple of times I had to lead him over a small patch at his old barn, and each time I did it was a barely-controlled, frantic skitter. But I never worked with him. Old-style Becky would dragged him over to every single patch of mud she ever found and forced him to cross it, time and time and time again until he got over it. And in the end I would have had exactly what I trained for: A horse that didn't like mud, and tensed up when he saw it, but crossed it because he knew he had to.
But New-Style Becky... well, I just worked on other stuff. And if mud happened to be in the way when we had to go somewhere, then so be it. The only time I'd ever deliberately walked him over mud had been about an hour before, when he'd followed me willingly and without complaint over it the first time.
And now I had a horse that could feel me wanting him to go forward, and knew it was important to me.... so he did - because he trusted me, trusted that I wouldn't ask him to do it unless it mattered.
I sat as still as I could on top of Caspian, doing my best to keep out of his way as he skated and slid and dragged his legs out of mud that made a deep, sucking SCHLOOOOOP noise with each step. At one point he stopped, catching his breath and eyeing the chaos in front of us, trying to figure out which way to go.
Since I had a better vantage point I decided to chime in. You should maybe go that way---over to the left, right around that big mud puddle.... oh, never mind. Because even as I began to softly touch my request with my calf I thought - he's doing great. Why are you micromanaging, Becky? Let him figure it out.
Except....as soon as I said something, he listened, even though I was just mumbling with my legs. Oh, left? Through the big mud puddle? That way? But there's a huge puddle. Well, I think that's a stupid way to go, but if you think it's the best way, then I believe you.
And without a single hesitation Caspian continued forward, splashing calmly through a deep puddle that sprayed up dirty water over my boots and his belly, willing to trust and completely in tune because to him, I made sense.