My oh my, am I worn out both physically and mentally! Mom and I returned home with the horses on Saturday, June 19th, after spending a too-short week at Mendin' Fences Farm in Tennessee. Of course, we had a fabulous time, and came back with many new memories, friends, and much more knowledge than I can comprehend. However, for the sake of both me and you, my reader, I will attempt to recap our adventures and lessons.
Sunday we loaded the horses relatively easily and headed down Interstate 81, however it wasn't long til we hit a huge rain cloud and from that point on we passed through VERY heavy rain on and off for the rest of the trip.
We arrived around 3, unloaded, and at 6:30 had dinner with two of the other clinic participants (Lauren and her daughter, Danielle), Linda, Vic, and Harry. We went to bed early that night in preparation for a very busy day the next morning.
Monday I worked with Woody individually, and my hopes were to work on him maintaining a canter for longer periods of time. We worked at Liberty in the round pen a bit, getting him to freely think forward on the ground first before riding. Woody has the thought of slowing down or stopping ingrained pretty deeply in him, so it was a challenge to ask him to let go of that thought and canter because that idea is SO quick to return to his mind. However, we got several good canter laps and he seemed in tune with me and focused on our work, so I bridled him up and headed to the big arena. We warmed up a bit at the walk and trot, focusing on the little spots of resistance and his mind leaving that seemed to magnify when we cantered. He was really doing well with staying with me and my plan, so we ended up cantering a whole lap around the arena. Woody picks up the canter great; his transition has definitely improved over the past year, but he is so used to petering out after only a few strides, so one of the main goals for the week was to get him thinking FORWARD with me. When I'd feel him start to suck back, I'd egg him on, ride him straight down the line of the arena with a focus and plan. He'd feel my intent and pick his speed back up and after a good distance I'd ask for the trot before he thought of slowing down. It was a good lesson and reminder of just how powerful focus and intent is to horses.
Charlotte and Mom went later in the day, and they came to the round pen saddled and ready to ride. Mom's main focus for the week stemmed from a story a fellow horse friend shared with her. This particular woman who recently returned from taking her horse to a Harry Whitney clinic. She took her horse on a trail ride, and during the trail ride through the woods a limb from a tree fell on her and her horse. Because her horse was with her and trusting in her, the horse remained calm and didn't react to the limb. The woman was able to untangle herself from the branch and continue on the ride, unharmed. This story affected Mom because she knew that, though she is a wonderful horse that you can virtually saddle up and ride whenever, Charlotte would not remain calm in a similar situation or look to her for guidance. She would save herself first, then look back to make sure Mom was ok. Therefore, Mom wanted to focus on getting her horse with her, snappier, and feeling ok with her leadership so that when the chips fell, her horse would look to her.
Mom mounted Charlotte and began to show everyone what a normal ride looked like, and Harry immediately called her out. When Mom went to halt Charlotte, Charlotte slowed down a bit, took 5 steps, then kinda glided to a halt. Harry immediately said that that stop was "pitiful" and that that stop showed us that she isn't with Mom. Harry told Mom to come in stronger at those spots, in order to get a change in her thought. Mom did just that and pretty soon some nice changes came in and Charlotte was more snappy and prepared to do whatever Mom asked of her.
In preparation for my session on Tuesday, I emptied out our makeshift tack room (a.k.a. the trailer) and prepared it for a trailer loading session. I wanted to work on this particular task for a couple reasons: I only load Woody when I need to take him somewhere, and I didn't feel comfortable working at home alone on it with him because I saw how he reacted in Floyd to getting on the trailer and I didn't think I could handle that (he got away from Harry a couple times).
Anyhow, I handed over Woody to Harry and things started off nice and easy. Harry let him investigate the trailer, but insisted he stay focused on the task at hand and didn't let his mind wander. Eventually Harry started asking Woody to make an effort to get into the trailer, and when he'd take a step, Harry would release the pressure. It took 15 minutes to get Woody inside, and he surprisingly felt ok with it. He tried to pull his head away a couple times, but NOTHING compared to what happened in Floyd.
Harry then called me up to play with what he had just done with Woody. I would ask him forward, and when he went I'd release. As time went on, I'd get a bit more demanding and ask that he make a bigger effort. If he needed to come out of the trailer, I would allow him to, but immediately ask him back in. If he started to come out but not as strong, I could tap him on his rump and ask him back in and he'd step right back up. Another important this is to keep his thought in the trailer. He developed a habit of walking all the way in, and then turning his head around to look out the back pretty strongly. Harry told me I needed to insist he stay focused and not get distracted and that it would make for a more enjoyable experience in the trailer without having to worry about what's outside. Therefore, every time he'd look out, I would shake the end of my lead rope toward his face and he'd stop looking out the back.
Eventually he got really comfortable in there and when I went for the butt bar the last time, he didn't try to push against it and back up. We ended that session on a good note and I was really pleased with the progress we had made.
Because I didn't get the chance to ride Woody earlier that day, that evening Danielle and I pulled our ponies out and rode together in the arena. Woody did a really amazing job that evening. He was forward, soft, relaxed, and did a really great job staying with me and focusing on the task at hand... whether it be weaving the barrels, trotting a circle, or cantering the rail.
Wednesday morning Lauren, Danielle, Mom, and I all rode together in the arena. Mom wanted practice riding with other horses because she wanted to address Charlotte's snarkiness that comes up when she's with other horses. Harry told her that when she rode past a horse and laid her ears back, etc, it was her mentally leaving Mom and focusing on the other horse. If she was 100 percent with Mom and on her plan with her, she would not have a problem with any other horses. This really helped Mom and she began to ride very focused on where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do, and Charlotte got in tune with that so that she didn't react near as much at other horses. Harry then climbed aboard Charlotte and, of course, got her going really nicely. He demanded she be with him, ready to go, stop, slow, turn at any moment. He then practiced "riding the line" between the other three horses parked in a circle. Whenever Charlotte would react to one of them he would do something to get her back with him and she'd be right there, ready to go. Eventually he got her to the point where she hardly noticed she was circling horses instead of barrels.
Then it was my turn. I practiced riding between the horses and keeping Woody "on a line" and with me. Around the turns I noticed he tended to leave me and fall in on his shoulder, but when I realized that I was leaving him mentally and focusing on turning wide enough to clear the hind end of the horses, I was able to focus on him, picking up his shoulder around those turns, and we began to go along much freer and together.
On top of this lesson, I had Harry help me with my forward. For some reason, Woody was not as forward as he had been the past two days, and he began to get an ugly expression when I asked him forward... especially in the canter. Harry told me this was not a surprise because Woody has that thought of sucking back and lack of forward soooo ingrained in him that it wont go away completely that quickly and it will crop back up the faster we go, i.e. the canter. He told me to mainly focus on getting him going forward, and letting go of his sucking back. Though he might throw in an ugly face at first, the more used to going freely he gets, the better he'll feel about it, and the ugly face will go away. At this point in time, I can't ask him to both go forward and have a happy face about it because that would be demanding too much of it. The happy face will follow in time. That day, we eventually got a better forward going but it still wasn't as good as it had previously been.
Thursday came and I rode with Arielle and Peter Pony for our lesson. He put on a pony parade and reunited the two ponies from last year. Woody and I continued on working on his sucking backness, but we really focused on fixing it in the walk and trot first before moving to the canter. Harry said that if I expect it to go well in the canter, I have to have things going almost perfect in the walk and trot, have him turning well and completely, not running through his shoulder and not falling in on his shoulders around the turns. This led to us practicing leg yields. Harry set up four barrels in a line and told me to leg yield Woody weaving in and out of them.Woody got the hang of it pretty quickly, but got in a habit of only moving his shoulders sideways and leaving his hind-end to drag along in the back. I fixed this by asking for a bigger bend in his neck and insisting those hind legs come over, then I would release and walk on. Woody began to move more freely in those leg yields, and when we got back on the rail, I was able to leg yield him over if he started to fall in on his shoulder around the turns.
I had been looking for the opportune moment all week; and during this lesson it came. I told Harry I knew he was itching to ride my horse, and asked him if he would ride him and work with him a bit. He had ridden everyone else's horses and Woody felt ostracized (or so went my excuse to Harry). He, unenthusiastically, climbed up on the "Orca" as some called him, and went to work. He told me he was not an easy pony (imagine that?) to manage because his mind is CONSTANTLY wandering and the rider had to be on top of things with him and give him things to do to keep him with you or he'd just leave. He worked on his leg yields and "riding the line" with him, By the end, Woody was looking pretty good and Harry was out of breath.
Because this was the day that Terrie had come to audit, Harry and I decided to show off Woody's new trailering skills. We hooked up the trailer and I fetched Woody from the pasture. He was in and loaded in 5 minutes, and we were even able to put on the butt bar. He would lean on the butt bar, and when he did, I would tap him on the rump and he'd walk forward and take the pressure off the bar. He had a couple good releases in the trailer, and when I put down the butt bar, he didn't come out until I asked him to. He did fantastic. I then rode him bareback and in a halter back down to this pasture, and he was so unbelievably with me, focused, and soft, it was amazing.
Friday morning came and again, Woody and I rode in the morning, however this time was with Mom and Charlotte. They worked on the ground some, then Mom mounted Charlotte and worked again on focusing only on her horse, being there for her, and expecting her horse to do the same. Charlotte had actually been dealing with a bit of lameness in her front left hoof, but no one could figure out what from. She was lame a couple days before camp, but by the time camp rolled around she was sound. It was an on again off again type lameness, and it still remains a mystery as to what the cause is (she has been lame a few days since she's been home also). Mom took things slow with her, but rode her horse like she was riding between and around 6 different horses. Apparently, this imagery stuck with her as one of the most valuable tidbits of knowledge through the whole week. Riding between a number of different horses takes a lot of focus and energy to keep your horse focused as well. Simply moseying around isn't going to cut it when other are around, so that analogy has caused Mom to step up to the plate and ride her horse with a plan, focused on her horse and nothing else.
Woody and I played on the ground some, and even ground drove a bit with Harry's lines. Then I hopped on and started right where we left off the day before: leg yielding around the barrels, picking his shoulder up around the turns, keeping him mentally (and physically!) with me and man did he feel GOOD. All the strange ickyness from a couple days before was completely gone and replaced by nice forward movement, complete turns, and a great deal of softness to my reins. That's right, my pony greatly impressed me on Friday.
In the beginning of the week, my mom had asked if she could ride Woody. I was apprehensive to let her because I had put a lot of work and time into Woody's development, and if someone lowered the standard for him even for one ride, he would take advantage of it and it would take me that much longer to work back to where we were. We made a deal, and if she impressed me with Charlotte and the progress they made with Mom learning to focus and block out all other distractions and focusing on her horse solely, Woody would be her prize and she could ride him on Friday.
I parked Woody and watched as Mom weaved in and out of the barrels, asked her mare to stop and held in until Charlotte backed up, and how she took no notice of us in the peanut gallery. I decided she was ready for Woody, so we traded horses.
She had a ball on Woody. He was sharp, soft, and engaged so much that she compared him to a Ferrari. He was going really nicely for her and she even got to practice and tune up his leg yields some. Though she didn't canter him, she walked and trotted him out really nicely. I rode Charlotte a bit, too, but her foot was giving her trouble that day so I didn't do much. I let Mom have her pony ride on Woody and watched as she rode him really nicely.
All in all, camp was, of course, a wonderful experience. The theme that a lot of people held onto for the week was presenting a choice to the horse. We are not here to force the horses into doing something; but rather, we are here to present them with an option and have them truly search for the correct one. Allowing that search in the horse is vital, because when he finds that right answer that good spot he'll find when he arrives will be that much sweeter because he knows he's the one who found that.
Our ultimate goal should be to get the horse's mind with us completely. To have him focused on our plan, easy to direct, and feeling good about what he's doing. That comes from the rider providing extreme clarity for the horse, and also offering the horse a genuinely good spot to be: one without worries or unfairness.
I learned a lot at Mendin' Fences, and I can't wait to see Harry again in October in Floyd!
I will post pictures in a separate post, and I will write of our other updates later as well. Sorry for the delay in the clinic report, things have been busy on the farm!