May 30, 2012

That Forest, Tree Thang

So I go to a LTJ clinic. I actually went to more than one. They were all interesting, entertaining in ways Linda perhaps had not intended, and I always came away with lots to think about.

There were always some serious horse people (i.e. me), some clueless newbies (‘I have a two yr old unbroke stallion! He loves me! I can tell cause he bites my neck!’), some sycophants (‘Linda is GOD! See the WAND! Worship the WAND!’), and a couple of bored boyfriends of various attendees. I learned to bring my own coffee and donuts; these were tea, hummus, and granola events. I always wore jeans and paddock boots. There were always lots of pink and purple Kerrit tights, even though we weren’t riding. There was a LOT of talk about feelings.

I did grow up in California in the the 60’s and 70’s, so its not like I hadn’t been around the horse psychic amulet wearing crowd, but this was the east coast in the 90’s, and the Linda clinics were kinda like the Land That Time Forgot. Think beads, batik, and feathers. But be that as it may, they were fascinating.

May 29, 2012

The Fig Tree Speaks

The horse world sometimes has a lemming like quality. Every couple of years a new Horsie Guru comes on the scene with a ‘new’ way to do ‘whatever’, and since many people have horses, and many people have problems with their horses, the Gurus can quickly get a bunch of press, which leads to clinics, which leads to followers, which leads to sycophants who may or may not have any idea what the Guru is really talking about and whether the information will help their respective problems, or not.

Sad to say, this lemming like response to the various HGs doesn’t always reflect the actual quality or even sense of whatever each HG is espousing at the time. And I have to admit that the (may I call it?) religious fervor of some of the devotees is so off-putting to me that I am wont to dismiss the work of the HG in question.

Linda Tellington-Jones is an HG that comes to mind.

My first exposure to the Team work was at Smith. There was a woman at the barn, about my age, that had never had horses before. She had (of *course* she had!) bought a virtually unbroke three yr old stallion, some stout fugly cross of some kind or another, that periodically dumped her, squished her, stomped her, and bit her. I’d see her in its stall, very serious, doing weird stuff with her hands as the horse stood there looking bored. She was full of explanations about why he was always trying to kill her.  Uh-huh.

May 24, 2012

Click. Treat. Hmmm.

I had always been interested in clicker training. I grew up in San Diego and had seen the marine mammals at the San Diego Zoo, and at Sea World, and had met Shawna Karrisch and her wonderful Rottweiller. Horse people I admired, like Beezie Madden, used CT to good ends. Bryan seemed like the perfect candidate for me to expand from interest  to execution. I bought some CT videos, studied them, bought a little clicker at Petsmart, and off to the barn I went.

I tried it first on a couple of the more…er…normal horses. I called my friend Linda who was quite good at CT and she came and gave me a lesson It was interesting and very fun to watch the boys figure out the click treat connection and then to teach them to seek the reward. I loved it. Wonder and Zachy, the two boys we worked  with, got the idea in about two and a half minutes. Cool! I thought. This is it! CT will be The Breakthrough Bryan has been waiting for!

Well, not exactly.

I had already learned to break things in to not just small but infinitesimal steps with B, so I decided to start with the most basic thing. Click, treat. That was it. No target, no trick, just click, treat, respond.

I started in the cross ties, where he felt safe. Right in front of his stall, no Barn In The Distance issue to distress him. Well within his potentially reachable comfort zone. Right?

May 21, 2012

Kinda Slow Going

I was teaching quite a bit at the time we got Bryan and had a great group of sensitive and sensible teenage girls in the barn. They all loved the B and they all understood that he was…er…challenged. They had learned, or were learning, to ride well, so I let them all be involved in Bryan's day to day. They were perfectly happy to ride him at the walk and were patient with his…er…idiosyncrasies. We kept his work load light and only rode him once or twice a week, tops. We did not ask anything of him ( in the traditional Bryan Land we were drastically moving his furniture around) and we strictly followed the routine he showed us was necessary; mounting in the ring, staying in the ring, staying on the rail. 

So I started with halting and standing. He really didn’t get that. It wasn’t so bad if you halted him facing the barn (yes, The BARN! Remember, Bryan’s Holy Grail and Reason for Being was to STARE AT THE BARN) as long as you didn’t make him stand for long. But if you halted facing away from the barn he got very upset. So we started by halting, facing the barn. With any other horse I would have done a lot of treating, as in stop, stand, ‘good boy!’ and give a little peppermint or something. Naturally, this didn’t work with Bryan. He was well beyond anything so straightforward. He not only didn’t get or care that a treat was being offered, he would not bite it or chew it even when  I stuck it in the side of his mouth. After a minute or two he would realize something had apparently magically appeared and would crunch it up, absently. I didn’t have to worry about him mugging for sweets. Every event was new, and separated in his mind. Halt, stand, stick treat in mouth, stare at barn, crunch absently. Over and over. And over.

He wasn’t just not treat oriented, he was treat *unaware*. Wow.

May 17, 2012


Bryan truly lived in his own world. He wasn’t remotely aggressive. He wasn’t even particularly ill-mannered. He just ‘wasn’t there’. I had never seen a horse like that and of course took it as a personal challenge. I wanted to get him to realize that things had cause and effect. This meant doing things in new ways. I felt like Annie Sullivan, spelling meaningless shapes in to Helen's hand. Would any of it connect?

I can’t separate a horse's mind from his body. We do lots of physical therapies with the boys; more on these later. But since Horses Are The Sum of Their Parts™ , and we want to reclaim them as riding/performance horses, we ride them.

I started Bryan's New Life with a different bit. There are two bits I like for this sort of reclamation. The Myler Comfort Snaffle Combination bit is my favorite. The Myler mouthpiece protects the palate and the tongue and the bars. I like that it’s loose ringed and the horse can lift it comfortably with his tongue. I also like the combination hackamore aspect, as a horse that has given up on his mouth, through unskilled and inconsiderate riding, can gain confidence again when ridden well with this bit. The nose pressure can reduce the defensiveness/dullness/pain associated with bad riding and regain the horse’s  understanding. It can help teach a horse to give, rather than pull. You can adjust the reins to have some leverage effect, you can use two reins, what have you. There is a lot of versatility, and it is very gentle.

May 11, 2012

Bryan Starts His New Life

My projects are horses that have been ridden and treated badly. Note: I do not say ‘abused’. Because though they have been, it has not been in the typical way that people consider ‘abuse’. They’ve not been starved, or whipped, or bled, or tied in chains. They’ve often been dearly loved, well fed, and groomed and shown with pride. But they have been deeply harmed indeed, and it’s been under the guise of ‘training’. They are sore and lame. But worse, since many soreness and lameness problems are fixable with time and the right therapies, is how out of touch with their bodies they are, and how meaningless the ‘aids’ have become to them. They are either over reactive, like Bryan, or non reactive, like Philip, a Selle-Francais gelding that we got at the same time we got The B. And so the rehab process starts with making them aware that their lives with humans now will have cause and effect. They will have choices now that are clear and that will make sense to them.

May 9, 2012

Back to Bryan

And so, back to Crips R Us Farms, and to Bryan.

Remember the tale of the three blind men and the elephant? Blind man number one feels the trunk and says ‘The elephant is like a snake!’ Blind man number two feels the legs and says ‘The elephant is like a tree!’ Blind man number three feels the tail and says ‘No! The elephant is like a rope!’ In the meantime, Mr. Elephant is rolling his eyes and thinking ‘Morons!’

Some people love feet. Some people love the chiropractor. Some people think its all muscular. Some people buy endless saddles. But a horse can only be the *sum of its parts*. Rehabbing has to include fixing the things that are ‘wrong’, i.e. skeletal and muscular and foot and tack issues, and doing what is ‘right’, as in ridden and ground work. You can’t just change the shoeing, the hoof balance, the tack, the skeleton, the muscle system. You have to address each system in turn and return it to its default setting, which in the horse is ‘sound’ and ‘benign’. But you can do all of those things and still have only limited success.

May 3, 2012

In Which I Find My Calling

One more post about my Centered riding clinic experience. I want to make the point that the work didn’t just make sense in my own body and as a rider. What I had not anticipated at the time was that riding in a physiologically correct manner could change, permanently, the *horse’s* body. So bear with me.

I had been a piano teacher and an English teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and a tutor. I had never been interested in teaching riding or being a trainer. How many years can you tell someone to get their heels down? Bleah. I had followed the universal assumption that a rider was either talented or they weren’t, that a horse was either willing or he wasn’t, and there wasn’t a whole lot you could do except keep working at it and hope for the best. But Susan taught me otherwise.

The CR certification clinic was intense. Four (five?) days in the spring, the summer off for teaching, then four (five?) days in the fall to discuss and refresh. Again we rode twice a day and then studied Susan’s great illustrations, our little plastic human skeletons,  and each other. I got it, I felt it, I knew it was life changing, but I didn’t know how to apply it to a student.  We had to demonstrate practice teaching  and I was dreading it. I just couldn’t see, in a new person, what exactly was out of place. Nor did I know how to fix it.