Thursday, June 16, 2011 |

6-16-2011: Notes from a 3-hour workshop


I started playing with Patriot and Glory today, two huge, green draft/Saddlebred crosses—a really fun mix of a lot of life mixed into a ginormous draft body!! Not too much to say, just working on the very, very basics of getting clear about their space-my space, standing still, freeing up the front end, going in some circles, etc.

This evening was a workshop with me and Maia and two other lovely ladies. We did groundwork and I came away with a lot of good things to remember for Maia.

1. Getting clear about space

Things are really going a lot better in my learning to release Maia back into a spot—releasing her feet back works a lot better if I think about moving her whole diagonal (both the front/back foot) and not just the one foot I want.

However, when we were just standing there, she was doing the tinest bit of creeping. It wasn’t bad at all, she wasn’t rooting around, but every few minutes she’d put one of her feet forward. I’d go in and release her foot back, but had to definitely keep repeating it. That was when Karen mentioned that too much of that starts becoming an awful lot like correction and
will not only be ineffective but start ticking Maia off, more or less. ;) She suggested I just become a whole lot more clear about the space—meaning, I might firm up a whole lot on the space around her when she moves, because clearly my boundaries and expectations are not clear to her.

So I did that, and it worked great. Maia stopped creeping!

2. Getting clear about the space when moving around her head

Another exercise we played with was moving from her hip on one side around her head to the hip on the other side without her moving a single foot. However, it had to be done without crowding her head, so meant I’d need to go rather a ways out around her head. She was so ticked off the first time I did it, it was almost sadly funny. Her head swung one way and then the other way and then she kind of stomped forward into my space and put her crabby face on and just stood there all upset for quite a while. Actually, it took a good long time, maybe 15 minutes, to get her to come out of Crabby Face.

So we talked about that a little while and found I had two problems going on. First, I wasn’t clear about the space. I needed to firm up on it when she moved, or better yet, become clearer about releasing her back the moment she started to think about moving. So we got that figured out, and then I was able to walk a much longer distance away and give her a ton more room and she was happier. ;)

3. Loosening up her tail/root of her neck

One thing that works well, often, to loosen up her root of her neck when she gets all crabby and locks it down is to slowly, very slightly, “wave” her dock back and forth. This releases the root of her neck in a different way than perhaps doing the upward “lift” on her withers or chin, because when she’s crabby, anything even THINKING about towards her front end sends her diving further into the depths of crabbiness.

So she was still kind of mad about my presentation earlier (walking around her head), so I went to her tail to do it. She was quite upset initially, swung her head right and left and backed up a step, but slowly her hips started to move and then it went up to her diaphragm and she breathed and right afterwards released the root of her neck and dropped her head and bent it. But I wasn’t tuned in and didn’t stop the waving and should have and she got kind of upset again and started putting her head back and forth and tensing up again.

4. Having a job

The clearer I can be about exactly what my horse’s job is at any time, the better. Standing still can be just as much a job as cantering a circle, but it’s important to be just as clear. If she’s to stand still, I want to be clear that each of her feet is standing on a Frisbee and if she moves off the Frisbee, she’s not doing the job. And so on.

This makes it a lot easier to stand for long periods of time with her, because instead of us both getting bored, she has a job to do: stand totally still, and if you move a foot (like to scratch a fly), put it back in the same spot when you’re done. And my job, of course, is to set her up well for it (ex, square and balanced, me not in her eye).

5. Checking in with me and heightened communication

This is more random, but it is absolutely fascinating how incredibly present the horses are once you start to look for it. I’ve only started to see it since I’ve been working with feel and realizing that so much—even all—of what they do is in response to our feel, even if it doesn’t look like it. For example, so many times, I might ask Maia to do a lateral flexion on float (or with no lead rope at all), and she’ll turn her head and sniff me. Or I’ll have her drop her head, and she’ll sniff the ground or rub her foot. And on and on. What I thought before was just her NOT doing what I wanted (“OBVIOUSLY she wasn’t dropping her head on my “cue” because OBVIOUSLY she is just concerned with itching her foot”) is actually, I see, her putting a purpose to my feel. She’s giving herself a job to do that makes sense to her.

Anyway, I’m not sure how much that relates, but it does, I think, to my point. Before I would’ve seen all of her looking at me as just coincidence, but I’m seeing now exponentially more how much it means. She communicates so much to me just by turning, looking, checking in. It’s not telepathy, it’s just plain communication, but in the most unbelievable form. I almost wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it dozens of times a day now when I’m working with these horses.

For example, Karen had a microphone on because the rain was pouring and the indoor sounded like we were in the middle of a hailstorm, so she had it up pretty loud. But then the rain stopped and I’d moved Maia up closer to the loudspeaker to be nearer Karen and Maia could not stand the loudness. She didn’t move or anything, she just looked over at it a hair and at Karen and looked back and me several times with the most pained expression, like she was asking for help. I immediately took her back to the end of the arena and Karen turned it down and Maia was totally fine.

Or, another time, Karen was actually demonstrating what not to do around horses in going up to their head, and Maia hated it, of course, and looked at Karen on her right and then back to me on her left, clearly upset about being constrained between us two and upset with Karen for doing that and didn’t know what to do and asked me for help.

Or, Maia stepped on her lead at one point and I let her think about it and experiment with how she might fix the problem. She didn’t know what to do and after a minute clearly looked at me for help. I showed her how to pick up her leg and she was fine.

It is just the most unbelievable thing, and I really don’t know if I would’ve believed it unless I saw it myself so much. But it HAPPENS. And it makes perfect sense if there isn’t the huge prey-predator divide, but instead if horses and humans were created to be partners together. They would need to have a way of communicating when they needed help do get a job done. And that’s what I’m seeing. Otherwise, why would a prey animal ask a predator for help? It doesn’t make sense, it seems.

6. Lunging/circling and releasing the inside hind

Here’s where a few issues came up. I was facing her hip more than about 10-15’ behind her, which meant she was pretty upset with me. Once Karen had me change my position, she was better, but was doing almost constant head slinging, which was new. I could tell her hips were stuck and she kept falling out on the circle, so I was trying to release the rope back to her again and again which basically was just ticking her off and causing some pretty frantic head slinging.

So I had Karen take her to show me where my feel and releases were off. Apparently I needed to keep facing more behind her so as to not block her body at all, make the releases smaller, and time it to release with the inside hind. That helped a lot and Maia’s head stopped slinging almost right away. However, she did keep stopping, and then she would lower her head and give the whole bend that Karen was asking for—just at a halt.

I have tried to build in the stop on a float, when I “set” that float in the rope towards her, and I think that was what she was feeling and responding to more as a cue instead of just going off of Karen’s feel and intent, so that was interesting.

7. Expression (ie, changing the permanent Crabby Face!)

Clearly a huge element for Maia and I is that under even the tiniest miniscule most nonexistent pressure, she goes right away into Crabby Face. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Under quite a lot of pressure (ie, traditional training, clicker training, natural horsemanship, etc.), she can sometimes mask it and it’ll come and go. (It gets masked under a lot of tension and quick movements but the stiff, crabby face is still there if you look). Under just a little bit of pressure (basically, ill-applied feel and release), she doesn’t mask it at all and gets this positively horrendous expression and can and will maintain it basically indefinitely until you change your presentation. But I’ve been having a really hard time doing that and finding out what ticks her off so much.

Here's a good, solid Crabby Face for you. If she could speak, I think I would be hearing some nasty words...


So I was worried that that might take weeks and weeks to work through, but when Karen took her, within just a few seconds Maia’s expression was totally good, even though Karen was really firming up on the space around Maia a few times and giving her some pretty solid releases. But Maia was totally tuned in, freed up, ears moving and forward and free, a great “available” expression. So it wasn’t the method—it was the presentation.

There is so much that goes into a presentation that ticks Maia off, but I’m trying to nail down a few things:
• Obviously any sort of pressure—treats, phases, patterns, etc.
• Any sort of block in my body language—even LOOKING at her hip when I’m lunging, for example
• Any sort of unsureness. I have to be totally in that place of 100%, even if I don’t have even the faintest idea of what I’m doing. Easier said than done…
• Any sort of unbalance between “doing” and “being.” Meaning, if I get too focused on accomplishing something or even LEARNING something, she gets upset.
• Any sort of judgment (see below).

8. Judgment

This goes a lot deeper than I originally thought. I have been working hard on giving up any judgment and correction of her (with sometimes correction doing a soft, “quiet” thing too many times rather than making a solid expectation clear enough so that it only has to be presented/explained once—see earlier, #1). I’m still working on it, fully accepting everything she gives me as a legitimate response to whatever feel I gave her.

However, there is another huge aspect of this that is becoming more clear to me: judgment of myself. Especially when working with feel, you and the horse are almost “one” being (as I’ve talked about in this post). You’re both completely in tune to the other’s feel—all of their perceptions and intuitions and attitudes—and that’s how you communicate.

So the thing is, if I am judging myself, she feels just as judged—judging me is judging her. And she HATES that. Absolutely hates it. So I have to get to the point in myself of completely letting go any sort of “I did that wrong” or “this is my fault” or “I keep screwing that up” or even “I need to get better at that” because that is all going straight to her as well.


Karen also mentioned how it’s critical to have a mindset of “the solution is RIGHT there, it’s JUST about going to happen, you’re ALMOST there, it’s just really bubbling over at any second now,” instead of thinking “I don’t know, it might not be coming, something’s not happening, maybe I need to change.” That is another big one for Maia.

Okay. Whew. Enough processing for a 3 hour clinic… time for bed. :)