“The more questions you ask, the more bleh his face gets,” Erin told me, midway through our lesson. “When you get purposeful and confident, his face gets happier.”
I spent almost three hours with Erin Murphy at Equine Partners, Inc., today. We met at the barn so she could walk with me to Rocky’s pen and see how he responds when he sees me, proceeded through the warm-up on the ground, saddle fit and cinching up, and riding. At each stage, we discussed the behaviors, how to interpret them, and what actions to take. We covered a hundred things, at least.
But when I reflect, I see that there is common theme running through everything — both the holes that we discovered and the successes I’ve been having: Purposeful Engagement.
Purposeful Engagement means:
- Have a purpose for every action, such as playing with transitions during warm-up (action) to lengthen and strengthen muscles (purpose).
- Use purpose as a platform for leadership; purpose builds confidence.
- Consistent, confident purpose creates interest where external objects like cones, poles, and barrels do not.
For more details than anyone could possibly want, read on.
Warming Up with Purpose
We started out by checking Rocky’s back and ribs. We found soreness around the withers that was worse on the right side, but he was pretty good otherwise.
If the soreness was muscle, it should get better with warm-up. I asked him to jog in a big traveling circle and showed her how I’ve been starting things. Ah-ha! I discovered that I’m not really warming him up physically, nor am I engaging him mentally.
“Just walking or jogging around aimlessly doesn’t really warm anything up,” says Erin. She showed me a different approach and I saw a change in Rocky’s interest and in his form. I have been thinking of the warm-up as kind of an all-over “get the blood moving” process instead of a more focused limbering, suppling, and elongating process.
We played with three “lengths” in the walk — short stride, medium stride, and extended — for ten minutes before moving up to a trot. Then we played with the three lengths at the trot: a short jog, a medium trot, and an extended trot. Rocky and I have not done this before, so I had to figure out my signals and he had to figure out my meanings, but we got there. I saw how this approach engaged him more mentally and thus connected him to me more emotionally. I also saw how extending the stride stretched the muscles, so we kept the transitions to a few strides at first, and then shortened again, until he could hold the medium stride longer and then eventually the extended stride longer.
We checked his back again and he barely reacted at all. Success!
Saddling, Shims, and Sore No More
My saddle is fitting differently now that Rocky has bulked up, so we spent quite a bit of time analyzing fit and trying different saddles from the tack room. When I bought him, I couldn’t see past my glitter cloud of HORSIE!, so I didn’t notice he was a different shape than the stock horse I wanted. I mean, he’s an Appaloosa, right? They’re stock horses, yes? Sigh. Rocky is a Thoroughbred in temperament, in sensitivity, and in shape. (And, as it turns out, in breeding, if you look back a generation or two.)
Rocky needs a saddle that flares out more at the front, to free those big shoulders, while still providing clearance for his high withers. He needs the channel to be wider so that when we bend and turn and move, the panel doesn’t edge over and bump his spine. But since I don’t have a few thousand dollars sitting around to buy him a new saddle, we had to get creative with what we had.
We ended up using just my Equine Comfort fleece correction shim pad with a couple of shims to fill in the hollows and lift the front a bit, and added a thin shim under the back end to balance it out and make the seat level. We discussed how I will be able to use the shims with the new CSI pad when it arrives. Erin also showed me how to use Sore No More liniment to ease his back before and after a ride. He seemed to like the sensation. (I certainly did, when I applied it to my shoulder later.)
Our whole purpose in spending about an hour at this stage was Rocky’s physical comfort, as a foundation for emotional and mental comfort and willingness to move.
Riding, Reins, and Release
When I told Erin some of the challenges I have felt lately with riding, she asked what my purpose was in riding with one rein. “I still have a habit of pulling back on both reins to stop,” I told her. “In the four or five sessions I have done with one rein, I think I have kicked that habit, and I’m lifting more instead of pulling, and I feel more balanced and confident in my whole body.”
She said that is all good stuff. And yet, some of the new challenges arise because of the one rein. “You can’t teach him straightness with one rein,” she pointed out, because you can’t get the rein over to the other side fast enough to correct wiggly noodle. She described how Rocky can seek a boundary and not find it, so seek further, until the boundaries on all four sides are pushed out so far that I can get lost in the space. And he becomes dominant.
We talked about balancing what he needs with what I need. “He might need to canter a cloverleaf pattern, but that’s probably not in your best interest right now,” she said.
I needed the one-rein riding to correct my habit of bracing on the reins and pulling both reins to stop. Rocky didn’t really need one-rein riding. I said yes, that’s true, and that sometimes he has to suck it up, because we can’t progress until I get better at some things, including building my strength and flexibility.
I started with one rein to show her what I’ve been doing most recently, and then tied the rein into two so that I could work on straightness. It is okay that I haven’t been working on straightness — and except for our very first halt, I remembered to lift one rein to stop, every time! But today we wanted straightness to help with impulsion.
“I think it is all dominance,” she said, after I had ridden at the walk and asked for some trot a few times, and she could see his resistance. “He is not in pain, he’s [mostly] sound, he’s fine. This is not physical.” That is what I had been feeling too. Validation!
Horses have three systems that operate in a specific order: the RESPECT system, the IMPULSION system, and the FLEXION system….If IMPULSION isn’t functioning, check the prior system – RESPECT. If you have a horse refusing to go, you need to get more respect from your horse. – Parelli.com, Correcting Horse Balking
We addressed several things. One is that I’ve been releasing at the first step, however draggy, instead of raising my standards now that we’re at a higher level and giving him incentive to find the release. She showed me that I can squeeze my legs around like I am trying to lift him up as we float upward like a balloon, and that it’s even okay if my heels come up a little (take that, 10,000 repetitions of “heels down!”), and to keep my energy lifting and squeezing and lifting until I get impulsion, and then release.
The first time she had me keep my legs on like this, she stood by me and added some driving game by applying her hand to the side of his belly. He floated sideways several strides and she came right along with us. Sideways wasn’t working for him, so he went forward, stepping out smartly, and she said “Release!” and we both released. When we stopped, he licked and chewed, and I told Erin I’ve never felt the sensation I had felt then, of floating like that. “He must have really been lifting his feet up!” I said.
It turns out he had engaged his core and rounded his back and powered through his back end, and now I know what that feels like. Now I can see what to look for and feel for on the ground, to build the strength and habit for rounding his back under saddle. I can feel the purpose of cavaletti and carrot stretches and proper warm-up and cool-down methods and playing with transitions within the gaits as well as between gaits. (I also found a sensible article about slowly helping a horse learn to engage and round.)
Erin noticed that when I was asking her questions and describing things while just standing still or slowly walking around, Rocky’s facial expression got more sour. When I was doing something purposeful and direct, like “trot across the arena to the barrel” or “extended walk to the center and stop,” he looked happy and relaxed. In fact, his head was low the whole time — this was not an anxious, spooky, fearful RBI day. It was a “bah, humbug, what’s in it for me?” LBI day.
I asked about how to keep it interesting, and she said, “A lot of things can be interesting. I find that I am not interested in what someone has to say if I don’t respect them. Respect can create interest.”
I think about this as being like partner dancing with someone who doesn’t lead, or who inconsistently takes the lead and then drops it, versus dancing with someone who is a solid, consistent lead. It doesn’t matter if the inconsistent leader is a more graceful, more knowledgeable, or more accomplished dancer. The solid lead is more fun to dance with because you can learn the moves and develop patterns — figure out what happens before what happens happens, for example, and put effort into the little flourishes and personal touches that make the dance uniquely yours.
We concluded with a message Erin has given me before: “Have the confidence that he can do this. His body can do this.”