Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Boy Is Growing Up!

 *sniff, sniff*

It seems like only yesterday that I purchased a scrawny little Thoroughbred jumper with the intent of turning him into a dressage horse.  Several of my friends thought I'd lost my mind, but I presevered.

And that little Thoroughbred jumper has passed a major dressage milestone:

Yup, that's my little Thoroughbred jumper in a full bridle!  I am so ridiculously proud of him.  I will admit
I was very hesitant to start him in the curb bit.  My trainer had told me at the beginning of the year that he was ready, but I wasn't sure.  This is my baby that we're talking about, here!  While I have ridden horses already trained to the full bridle, Spider is the first horse I have ever trained this far and I want absolutely everything to be perfect for him.  So I put it off.  They aren't required until Prix St. George, and even then only if you're competing in FEI competitions.  At USDF shows, snaffles are legal even at Grand Prix.  So, there was no rush.

Turns out, Spider took to the curb like a fish to the sea.  The first time I rode him with it, I intended to just leave the curb rein alone, not even pick it up.  I would ride with only the snaffle rein, so that Spider could get used to the weight and natural action of the curb.  That is the usual way the full bridle is introduced.  Spider was not happy with my decision.  He reacted quite poorly to the loose curb, and was not happy until I picked up the curb rein.  Which really makes sense.  Spider is a very sensitive horse.  He did not like that curb bit bouncing around in his mouth at all.  But once I had it in my hands, he moved into it willingly.

I really could not be more proud of Spider.  I am proud that he has reached the point in his training where he has the strength and refinement to accept the curb so readily.  And I am proud that I was able to take him to this point.  To me, working in a curb bit is a skill to be achieved by both horse and rider.  I don't see the curb as means to force my horse into a frame, but instead as a means to refine our communication.  Through the curb, I can use the tiniest of movements to "speak" to him.  He appreciates my lighter movements, and rewards me with better responses.  

We have passed a milestone, but this does not make the work easier.  It makes the work exponentially harder.  The tiniest of tiny movements are required for the curb and the horse must have more impulsion to work into the bit.  I need to ride harder, and yet more lightly and tactfully.  One screw up here will undo everything I've worked for.  I'm excited, terrified and giddy all at the same time.

I just liked this picture.  With his scruffy mane I can totally pretend he's an Andalusian!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I am thankful for a wet tractor seat, because I wouldn't be able to get my chores done in this mud without a tractor.

I am thankful for puddles in my arena, because I have an arena of my very own, puddles and all.

I am thankful for wet and muddy horses, because I am living every little girl's dream.  And that makes all the puddles and mud worth it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

How cute is that?  It was taken with my phone, so the quality is not the greatest.  That thing has a shutter speed of about 10 minutes (slight exaggeration, slight). 

I took Matilda out on a whim.  Her whim, not mine.  I was trying to get through the gate, and she darted out behind me to eat grass in the lawn.  I couldn't really reward that sort of cheekiness, so I threw her on the lunge line and made her go around for a bit.  Then I let her eat grass in the lawn.

She did pretty well, too.  Once we sorted out who was in charge.  I generally don't do much with Matilda.  She gets brushed every day, and her feet trimmed when she needs it.  Once or twice a month she gets taken out for the kids to torment  brush and have leadline rides on.  But, now I'm starting to think there's some undeveloped potential in that little horse.  Just look at the suspension in that trot!  And check out her free walk:

 I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I think Matilda has better natural gaits than Spider.  Don't tell him I said that, though.  He was already mad enough about me working with Matilda and not him.  He spent the first few minutes neighing, stomping his feet and banging the gate.  Then he settled down and just gave me the stink eye until I brought Matilda back.

Uncle Creepy is watching.......

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fun Things

I have been absent from the Internet of late, thanks to a dodgy connection.  Ahh, the joys of country life!  I do enjoy my rural setting, I just wish the utilities were a little more reliable.  Every time a tree goes down around here we lose our electricity, cable, phone lines, and pretty much every other convenience of modern life.  And we're pretty much last on the list for getting utilities back up.  Oh well, I suppose there's a price for everything.  I'll pay this one.

The view alone makes it worthwhile.

I have had one victory against modern technology, though :  I figured out a good use for my new smart phone.  It plays music!  I know, many of you are now groaning, thinking to yourselves, "She didn't know it could play music?!"  Yes, it took me several weeks to figure out that you could download music to the iPhone and use it as a stereo type thingy (technical term).  Yes, I am iStupid.

But, now that I've figured it out, I'm pretty pleased.  I consider myself a music lover.  I have no talent for music, myself, but I do have a great deal of appreciation for it.  In my house, the radio is blaring almost constantly.  And I appreciate all kinds of music, from Classical to That Stuff That The Kids Are Listening To These Days.  I think music is less about genres, and more about feeling.  If a song makes you feel good,  then it's right.  Hmmm, that idea sounds familiar....  it sounds a lot like how to ride a horse.

So, I have my playlist, and I can put my phone in my pocket and listen to music while I ride.  The benefits of this arrangement are numerous.    Music has a way of energizing me, and my energy infects my horse.  But, my music also gives me something to sing to.

In various fairy tales, the heroine uses her beautiful singing voice to tame wild beasts to her bidding.  I can assure you, my singing voice is not beautiful, nor will it tame any wild beasts.  Singing does, however, regulate my breathing.  Regular breathing helps regulate my posture.  That's something that other sports have already figured out, but something riders seem to ignore.  I know people who run marathons, they talk about their breathing.  I know people who practice martial arts, they talk about their breathing.  I know people who practice Yoga and Pilates, they talk about their breathing.  I know very few riders who talk about their breathing!  Even riders who run marathons, or practice martial arts, or Yoga, or Pilates, do not talk about their breathing when it comes to sitting on a horse!  This is something that is very much overlooked in our sport...

I figured out many years ago, when I was riding sale horses and pretty much anything else that no one else would ride, that when I sang to the horse it relaxed and I had a better ride.  I did not understand why it helped back then, but it increased my profit margin, so I went with it. 

Many years, and a great deal of education in behavior and physiology later, I understand that my singing helped me relax, which in turn helped my horse relax.  When we get anxious, our body activates our autonomic nervous system.  The autonomic nervous system is an animal's "flight or fight" response.   When it is activated, our bodies take over our rational minds and send the message to just survive at all costs.  Our respiratory rate increases, our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, they tense to the point that we draw ourselves into a crouched position.  We are ready to spring into action at a moments notice, either to fight our foe, or to run from our predator.  This not really advantageous to riding a horse.  Actually, riding a horse goes against all of our self-preservation instincts.  Come to think of it, it goes against all the horse's self-preservation instincts, too.

But singing combats that instinct.  In order to sing, we must fill up our lungs to capacity.  To fill our lungs to capacity, we must breathe deeply.  The simple act of breathing deeply resets our conscious and calms our autonomic system.  To breathe deeply, we must lift our sternum and drop our diaphragm.  These movements require us to engage our abdominal muscles, which then creates a cascade of muscle movements throughout our bodies that improves our posture and balance.

Try it:  Fill up your lungs as though you were about to belt out your favorite opera aria, gospel hymn, Aretha Franklin tune, the latest Beyonce hit, or even your children's favorite nursery rhyme.  The song itself doesn't matter, the passion and soul behind the singing is what matters.  Don't half-ass it, you've really got to get into this song! 

As your lungs fill to belt out your song,  as your sternum lifts and your diaphragm drops and your abs engage, you can feel your chin lift to allow the song to escape your mouth.  That lifting of your chin balances your head over your shoulders.  Your shoulders have been brought back and down by the action of lifting your sternum.  Your spine has lengthened and is balanced perfectly over your hips by the action of your abdominal muscles.  Just by the simple action of preparing to sing a song, you have nearly achieved the perfect dressage position: ears, shoulders and hips balanced perfectly over each other.   All you have to worry about now is your arms and legs, but your exemplary core position and breathing has made them nice and relaxed.  They are ready to do just what you tell them to.

So, load up your favorite music device, saddle up and go forth to make a joyful noise!  Just like music inspires our passion and soul, so should riding.  Sure, you may look crazy singing show tunes while riding, but you'll be crazy like a fox.  A fox with good posture!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Interesting Lesson

I have an ongoing issue with not sitting straight in the saddle.  Specifically, I tend to sit left.  Well, to be more accurate, I hang off the left side of the saddle.  I know it's because of my injury, since I didn't do it before I was injured.  But, "injured me" is the new normal for me, so I must learn to cope with it.

And I have... a few years ago I used to hang off the left side of saddle like a deranged trick rider: 

Hey!  Where'd they get a picture of me?  Just kidding, this picture is courtesy of Wikepedia's "Horse Riding Stunts" article.  I am not actually this talented!
Over the years since my injury, I have battled my tendency to sit off to the left.  I think that I have been fairly successful, in that mostly no one notices my tendency anymore.  An observant person will notice that my horse seems a little stiff to the left, but it takes a keen observer to note that the problem is starting with me.  I consider that a "win", since my horse performs as well as most and most people never notice my disability. 

My trainer, however, is a keen observer.   In my last lesson we were working on flexion, and he immediately noticed our left deficit.  He began with the standard  fix: Flex the horse left, put on your left leg, give the left rein.  It worked, but not really as well as it should have.  The more collection I introduce to Spider, the higher I travel up the training scale, the more apparent my deficit becomes.  He is a completely different horse in the left rein as opposed to the right rein!

In a fit of genius, my trainer suddenly yelled out "Look right!"  Now, this was while we were tracking left, so it goes completely against what we are taught as riders.  We are always taught to look in the direction of travel, because that shifts our body into the correct position to apply our aids for the bend.  Assuming, of course, that your body is normal.  Mine is not, as evidenced by my sitting to the left and interfering with my horse.

In my case, the directive to "look right" while tracking left pretty much fixed my horse!  My trainer was delighted, although he did admit that I looked sort of awkward like that.  In the space of one lesson, we couldn't really expand this new observation, so we left it at that.

I have, however, expanded on the idea in riding by myself, and I think I've hit upon how to make it really work as a long term fix.  I start my left hand bend looking right, I look right for several strides, then I cement that "looking right" feeling into my shoulders, spine and hips while slowly bringing my head back where it should be. I don't know exactly what it is about my conformation that makes me so discombobulated, although there are many suspects (numerous herniated discs and nerve damage, plus a degenerative scoliosis), but this little mental trick works like a charm.  In the end, you don't really need to find the exact source of the problem to fix it.  Sometimes I think I over-analyze problems, and then over-complicate them and give them too much space in my head, when I should just be moving forward and fixing them.

That's the thing I like most about my trainer.  He knows I was injured, but he still sees the rider I can be and not just the rider I am.  He is an FEI level competitor and an FEI judge, so he sees a lot more top competitors than I do.  And he assures me that every one of those top level competitors has physical issues.  So, I guess I'm doing good in that regard:  I'm just as injured as the top level competitors! ;)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tricks For Treats

I am always amazed at the number of people who are vehemently opposed to clicker training for horses.  I was talking to someone the other day who dismissed it in a highly unflattering way.  I find it disconcerting that anyone could be so casually dismissive of an idea without bothering to educate themselves on it.  There are many ideas that I dismiss, but I always educate myself on the subject before tossing them.

I do not practice clicker training myself, but I know what it is.   I know the science behind it and I have no inherent dislike of it.  I may dislike some people who claim to practice it, but I can assure you that has nothing to do with the clicker training.

I think much of the problem stems from a lack of understanding of what clicker training is.  In operant conditioning, clicker training is positive reinforcement.  But what is positive reinforcement? 

Most people I interact with know that I have a background in animal behavior and neuroscience and that I work with animals.  Thus, I often get asked, "Do you think animals have the same emotions people do?"  Depending on my mood, my answer is either "You realize you are also an animal, right?"  or the much more  accurate, "I think that humans think they have many more emotions than they really do."

We humans love language, it's sort of our thing.  Through our language, we come up with many more ways to express ourselves than our less linguistic animal fellows.  We define every range of our emotions and, in defining them, give them a bit more credence than they really deserve.  What we think of as "emotion", actually boils down to a few chemical reactions in our brains.  After all, even in all our glory, we are simply the sum of our chemical parts.  And, since no other animal has our fancy words to describe emotions, we humans must fall back on our chemistry for interspecies communication.

Clicker training, as positive reinforcement, can be boiled down to a simple chemical reaction.  In every animal's brain, there is a chemical called dopamine.  Dopamine makes us feel "happy".  We like being happy, so we want dopamine.  We want it, we crave it, we will do anything to get it.  A brain typically releases dopamine when the creature it belongs to is engaging in an activity that will increase it's likelihood of reproducing: eating, sex, aggressive displays, and (for social animals) social behaviors.  Whether we humans want to acknowledge it or not, we are animals who are here for the purpose of reproducing ourselves and our physiology is tailored to that end.  Every living thing's physiology is tailored to that end, which makes it a powerful tool.

So, when an animal eats, the brain releases dopamine.  As we have already established, the animal likes that dopamine and wants more.  The idea with positive reinforcement is that you combine that "Food = Happy" chemical release with an action.  So, the horse performs a desirable action and immediately gets a treat, thus releasing dopamine and making the horse feel "happy".  Eventually, when done properly, the brain is fooled and the dopamine is released when only the action is done, no treat required.  It isn't "tricks for treats" anymore, it has become an action ingrained into the animal's behavior.  That's the science behind clicker training.  And remember the list of behaviors dopamine is released for?  "Social behavior" is one of those.  So, if you scratch your horse's withers when he does something well, you're using positive reinforcement.  You don't necessarily need food to use positive reinforcement or clicker training, it just happens to be the easiest thing to use.

How does that compare with the usual method of horse training, the method most of us are accustomed to?   Well, we usually use negative reinforcement.  Many people get upset by that name, because we humans have a tendency to associate the word "negative" with "bad".  That's simply not accurate, though.  The "negative" in negative reinforcement is like a photography negative, it's an absence.  In negative reinforcement, a stimulus is provided until the desired action is displayed, then the stimulus is removed.  For example, in riding, we put our leg on the horse, the horse moves away from the pressure and we remove our leg.   The reward in negative reinforcement is the removal of the stimulus (i.e., our leg), as opposed to positive reinforcement where the reward is the application of the stimulus (i.e.,food). 

But both methods have the same neural pathway.  Both involve a reward, both involve a release of dopamine in the brain.  The reward differs, but in the end both methods hinge on an ability to provide the reward in a way that the trainee, the horse's brain, understands and will release the happy chemical for.  

In short, clicker training is exactly the same as every other acknowledged method of training, so stop being a hater.

Of course, when used improperly, it's a train wreck.  But, that's not any different from the conventional methods of horse training, either.


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