My Journey With Hugo Second Session by Janet Adams

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Respect and Boundaries

It’s a big ask to try to do justice in writing to the wondrous second lesson with Avril and Hugo but I shall try!

I turned up all excited as usual and Avril took me to the side to give me a briefing before we went in to say hello to Hugo. She explained about energy and how it affects our horses. While she fully understands obviously I am all excited to be turning up to see Hugo, she explained how my energy would affect him. Unlike greeting a dog with excitement where the worst that will happen is that he jumps up, horses pick up on our energy and his natural response will be to become anxious or try to put some distance between us. Avril likes to reminded me that horses constantly seek peace and security. So, after promising to show me more constructive ways to channel my natural happiness at being with my horse, we did some grounding breathing, helping me lower my energy before starting to work with Hugo.

As we were talking, Hugo was standing as instructed by Avril at the open door to his stable. Avril explained how she wasn’t looking at him, or talking to him, but keeping him in her awareness at all times. She notices every move of the head, flick of the eyes, every breath, and is reading him and being with him fully at all times. It’s magical!

We set out for the round pen with me leading Hugo on a loose rope. The gate opened to reveal a big puddle inside due to the amount of rain recently. I hoped my boots were water proof and gingerly found some shallower bits to walk through but Hugo was less motivated and stayed at the gate. He was definitely in a mood to teach me how to lead with intention! Avril showed me how to move his lead rope to get his attention, and to visualise him walking with me to the middle of the pen. Well I jiggled and visualised for what seemed like an age but he didn’t budge🌱 There was never any sense of confrontation though, he was just nice and relaxed, happily ignoring me while staying outside the pen with Avril who seemed very amused 😉 Eventually, she explained that we were in a standoff with neither of us succeeding in moving the other’s feet and with no clear leadership position, Hugo wasn’t ready to follow me. With more encouragement and a little bit of a sideways move, I managed to get one front hoof to take a little step and we were off into the middle of the pen, phew! A great lesson in staying calm and  quietly working with a technique until it has the desired effect.

And that was just the beginning. Avril then showed me how to introduce myself into my horse’s presence, standing calmly by his shoulder and giving him a little stroke on his neck before offering the back of my hand for him to read my energy signature, not shoving it under his nose so he has no choice as I did at first!. We discussed respect and acknowledging each other’s personal space. I was made aware to resist the temptation to invade his space with kisses and cuddles and fuss around his head but rather wait to be invited in.

So, with greetings completed Avril showed me how to move him backwards just a step, then two steps, eventually trying to get a tiny move of a few inches of his front left foot so it was lined up with his right all nice and square. When I succeeded Avril was very pleased with me and I felt like a star pupil!!

We then moved on to bending Hugo’s neck towards me while I stood by his shoulder. This was achieved by relaxing my arms and elbows, and putting my fingers either side of his nose bone and gently coaxing his head round to me. It was a beautiful gentle moment, reminding me of yoga or stretching exercises. I continued with a very gentle give and take with Hugo’s gorgeous muscley neck as he gradually turned towards me. We repeated the movement on the other side, and as he brought his head round in this gentle exchange of touch and movement, I felt like I was really communicating with a horse for possibly the first time ever. My little heart nearly burst and I was very close to tears when Hugo curled up his neck and raised his whole body up into a big beautiful tremoring shake, releasing lots of tension and deeply relaxing, then moving into me for a cuddle. Best horsey moment ever💛🐴💚😘

My Journey With Hugo by Janet Adams

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The Preamble..

Having completed the majority of my parenting duties in life, with an established career ticking over, a happy home and marriage etc, I have now only two more things I want to achieve in my life. One of those is becoming an accomplished horsewoman, with all the joy and discovery of a relationship with one of these incredible animals, and the wind beneath our feet as we ride.

I started my horsewoman journey about 7 years ago when I bought my first horse at a school sports day. I was over-horsed and after selling her quickly went on to buy a further two horses who were too much for me. I then decided I would never buy a horse again unless Avril was with me. So she kindly came and tested out a sure fire perfect pony, 14 year old school master who never puts a foot wrong, and within 20 minutes of riding him brought out the side of him we weren’t meant to see. When she asked the right questions, simple requests such as briefly standing and small figures of eight in walk taking him away from home, he was nappy, starting to bunny hop and threatening to rear. She didn’t push the point since we could both see loud and clear he wasn’t right for me. Phew!!! Another disaster averted!

So Avril kindly offered to find me a beautiful horse in France which she did which is how I came to have Hugo. After a few months with Avril she confirmed the fabulous news that he is going to be a suitable horse for me. I am overjoyed!! And to top it all off, in addition to training Hugo, Avril is also kindly training me, with the hope that our training will converge somewhere down the line 🐴💖🏇

So this blog is about that journey, taking Hugo from genuine, sweet and lovely but very green to the Foundation course finish line, (and maybe beyond), and I go from slightly awkward and nervous, but excited around horses, to calm, composed joyful horse communicator and rider!!

Lesson 1 – Introductions and Long Lining

On our first session Avril was wholly in charge of Hugo, tacking him up for some long lining in the lovely new sandy grassy arena. We set off walking down the path and onto the road towards the arena, Avril explained the basics of long lining, including communicating though your hands on the reins, through thought and voice while always being present in the moment with the horse. She explained how to lead from behind as Hugo was walking out in front, by this stage not worried about the rein presence around his sides and legs. Hugo, bless him, wasn’t at all sure about passing some statues of lions outside a gorgeous house on the way.  He stopped and tremored and clearly didn’t think passing them was wise! How right he would be if they were real lions!!

So I got the chance to see Hugo’s spooks from my safe distance behind, and how he reacts. Reassuringly, he just shook a bit and didn’t try to run off or lift his feet off the ground, which is exactly what I want of course in my horse. I also learned how Avril gave him firm assertive confidence using her voice and the reins, to reassure him that it was okay to walk on, and he did, good boy Hugo (I am so proud!).

We did some long lining in the arena when we got there, giving me a chance to appreciate his handsome shape trotting around the arena and I saw how Avril is doing her famous voice training through the gears which was fab! Hugo and I also had time for some cuddles and snuggles. We brought him home nicely tired and pleased with what he had learned, or so I imagine ☺️

 

Lesson 2 – The Big Green Balls

I arrived on Friday for our second get to know you session with Hugo. Avril asked did I have my riding gear with me, and sadly I didn’t because I had thought riding was a bit of a way off in our journey. Avril explained that Hugo had a lot of riding this week, and she had “gotten to the bottom of him” – an exciting landmark in a horse’s Foundation training it seems!! However we decided to introduce Hugo to the big green ball in the training pen instead.

There were two green balls, one was the size of the small ones at the gym and a ginormous Parelli one. We started with the small one, Avril rolling it to Hugo, and bouncing it in front of him, introducing him to this strange thing. I also got the chance to play with him, and credit myself for him learning how to kick it! While Hugo is obviously very attached to Avril, following her around the pen wherever she went.. with the help of the green ball for fun and amusement, I managed to pry him away from her so we were rolling and playing around the pen together. What magical fun with my horsie ⚽️🐴💛 .. .. Avril explained that it was an opportunity for me to be completely present in the moment with Hugo, and he was delightful.

We then introduced Hugo to the huge Parelli ball and Avril was rubbing it on his shoulders and back, gradually moving up to dropping it over his back  – and he was as good as gold! Although he had a bit of a reaction when it hit his back legs, Avril said it was because he didn’t know what it was and showed me how to gradually overcome that with gentleness and patience. It didn’t take long until he was comfortable with it touching his back legs too. He looked mentally tired by the end as he had learned so much (my clever boy!). I was on wings 🐴💖💖💚

 

 

 

The Value of Centering Part Five

IN centering our horse we can reduce the instinct to freeze, flight, or fight when he understands what is expected through the use of exercises that lead to greater physical and mental balance. True forwardness and straightness greatly helps form an improved connection between the two hemispheres of the brain by developing new muscle memory and therefore more positive responses. When our horse no longer feels compelled to act out the moves of survival mode, we can look forward to fewer random reactions. It should be recognised that most horses operate on a level of stress when asked to leave familiar surroundings. There are plenty of signs from the mild to severe. Here are some common ones: Inability to stand, a strong desire to rush home, calling, hurried paces, over sensitivity to the leg, high head carriage, rigidly pricked ears, head and ears turned back listening for sounds behind, planting, swerving, snorting, spinning, backing up, running through the hand, shooting forward, jogging, stopping suddenly, and overall body stiffness.

We don’t have to hold up a sign, our horse knows what we are feeling and yes, even thinking. For the most part we unconsciously transmit stuff, relevant data that horses pick up on. They know when we are frustrated, frightened, angry, or sad and for most of them, they will have been exposed to the whole range of human emotions from multiple owners, affecting them in ways far beyond the provision of adequate day to day care. In fact they have little awareness of centeredness in their relationship with us until we show them it exists. For the most part, when we want them to do something we don’t concern ourselves about balancing their minds and bodies. For example, we might ask our horse to move over in the box. A simple exercise that if we think about it at all, it’s likely to be whether or not he does it rather than how he does it. The way a horse moves over is indicative of his current state of mind, his mental balance and centredness, and a reflection of what’s going on inside us. Delivery of our cues and requests are influenced by our thoughts and feelings to which horses respond accordingly. On the ground we are most careful to move a horse’s feet in a way that is in alignment with the centering process just as much as when we are riding.

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The Value of Centering Continued

We will see positive results with all our relationships if part of our daily routine includes policing our thoughts and being mindful of our emotions. It’s helpful to remember that horses are non judgmental. Since they don’t make subjective decisions about our character or what we look like, anything they do is not to be taken personally. It is second nature for humans to make assumptions about whether or not a horse likes them but their feelings towards us are neutral. They may choose not to be with us by walking away or not wanting to be caught, but it’s still not personal. Although they can do certain things based on past memories and habit, they remain tuned into our emotional energy, accurately reflecting any changes we make with emotional thinking and body language .When we master the stillness within, we become centred and our horse will naturally feel comfortable in our company. The biggest compliment a horse can pay us it to do nothing. Horses connect with us most when nothing much is happening. We can think of non-doing as the place of potential. Watch horses in a field and you will see they are happy just being not necessarily doing.

Making it a part of our daily routine to police our thoughts and to work on our emotions is definitely worth it. Horses are our mirror as we are for them. Our interaction, whether based on calmness or a level of stress, affects the quality of not only our relationship but other areas of our lives as well. Horses have a hard time finding a clear signal to communicate with among the ‘noise’ of our undirected mental chatter. A congested neural highway is not an inviting proposition for a horse to adjust to. We know how effectively uninvited thoughts can affect a ride:

Centering is the foundation for all martial arts like Tai – Chi where they teach something called witnessing. They say do whatever you have to but remain conscious of the centre at the navel. If you are walking, be conscious of the centre at the navel. If you are eating, be conscious of the centre at the navel. Whatever you are doing, remain conscious of one thing: you’ve guessed it, that you stay centred in the navel. If you are conscious of the navel, you can’t think. The moment you begin to think, you won’t be conscious of the navel.

You may want to re-read the above to better understand the slightly cryptic message inherent in Chinese philosophy. In the West particularly, we tend to over think and when we are busy thinking, there is the possibility of sabotaging our ride and even our relationship with uninvited thoughts common to most of us:

“I hope he doesn’t shy at that hedge again today. If he does, I might fall off this time.”
“I hope we don’t meet Mad M on the way round, her horse always winds mine up.”
“I don’t really want to ride today but I know I should. I need to stop being so silly.”
“I think I’ll turn left down this path so Spookus doesn’t see the big barking dog. I’m worried he might run off and
I won’t be able to stop.”

Horses have a hard time finding a clear signal with when our heads are full of undirected mental chatter. A congested neural highway is not an inviting proposition for a horse to communicate with.
When groundwork and riding is undertaken with clarity and calmness, it allows us to stand at the doorway to centering. We may not be quite ready to go through but it’s wonderful to experience even a little as we work on nurturing our internal peace. Let’s all promise to improve as a witness!
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Today’s Centering Your Horse Video Blog

When living in a herd, a horse’s natural state is one of centredness, of being in the moment. In a centred partnership, we naturally want to recreate that in our herd of two. Horses respond in two primary ways to what their emotions tell them about the minutiae of their surroundings. They are acutely tuned into detail whether visible or not, with feelings of safety or of fear.

Frailty of indecision can affect us all. Sometimes fear of what the horse might be about to do sends us into temporary paralysis and we do nothing. There is a difference between waiting for something to happen with bated breath and sitting quietly remembering to breathe. It nearly always shows up in the way our horse reacts or if he reacts at all. When our minds are busy, distracted by fear or excitement, we are not receptive to making appropriate decisions. It’s the same for our horses who are wired to run, spin, or shy first and think later.

Photo 1The reality of modern life means we end up spending time with our horses in a completely unsuitable frame of mind for achieving what we want when riding them. It’s almost as if our days are lived against the clock. It’s not unusual to arrive at the yard already stressed with our heads full of mental lists of must do’s. Rather than taking the time to release tension in our bodies through correct breathing etc, we grab a head collar and sprint into the field, leading our horse in as swiftly as possible. Grooming and tacking up is done on the run in case someone wants to use the school. Besides, it will be dark in less than an hour and we need to get back to all those other commitments.

Horses find this stressful too. Like environmental responses, they deal with it in two ways: They self protect by switching off and sadly are often labelled lazy or unresponsive. In fact they are very sensitive but keep it hidden using this as a coping strategy to survive the turbulence of hectic yards and busy schedules. Those who choose not to escape by switching off are very switched on, restless pushy, and unwilling to stand still. Since horses reflect what they pick up in us, if we are in a hurry and our stress levels high, theirs will be too. We need time for quiet reflection to recognise that it is our responsibility to control not only our body but our mind as well. Our horses will only be able to experience centredness in our herd of two when we present a reflection of calmness to them. To make sure the horse is able to make changes, all are regularly checked and treated for any pre-existing condition causing pain or discomfort.

Is Your Horse Centred Continued

Among numerous imperceptible signposts horses hold up to us to show how they are feeling is one that says ‘Restlessness.’ There are plenty of horses who don’t like standing still even with their owner on the ground beside them. Restlessness is the counter side of relaxation. While a horse or person is relaxed, it can be said that they are moving towards becoming centred. For us, relaxation on demand is a choice, albeit a difficult one. For the horse, relaxation is the absence of fear and insecurity. Or to put it another way, when fear or anxiety is present, the horse’s presence, his body language, will be more or less chaotic. In physics, chaos is defined as the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions. That sentence can also apply to horses whose emotions are relatively complex. They are ultra sensitive to the smallest change, often smaller than we are aware of. Horses can and do behave randomly and unpredictably. They are flight animals and despite thousands of years of domestication, they retain instinctual reactions that are a great departure from often what we would like them to be doing.

Horses can sense and feel the slightest inner shift or spike in us. They are superbly attuned to the energy of emotion and thought waves. In recognising this, it behoves us to be the best possible custodian of our inner selves. When we come into authentic alignment with our thinking, emotions, and actions, our horses will start to listen, even if outwardly it seems they are not paying attention. To make order out of chaos, to become centred, a horse needs boundaries. Boundaries represent a navigational system, providing guidelines towards harmony and balance through straightness with forwardness.

When we ride, pleasurable as it is to sit there and let the horse carry us along the route, he or she will still look to us for direction. Those who are younger or lack confidence will also need support. Sometimes we confuse the two by thinking we must control the horse. Indeed, it can be hard to resist the urge to do so. It is always easier to deal with a situation when we are in control of ourselves. We earn the right to enjoy the feeling of centredness when by firstly working on the personal level. Their reactions become less dramatic, and their movements more predictable, through their understanding the limits (boundaries) within straightness. They are less impelled to cart the rider all over the place when given choices with immediate release from pressure within defined parameters.IMG_6208

Is Your Horse Centred

Centering is something many of us strive to attain as a harmonious mode of being conducive to overall good health and a valuable aid in stress management. Visualisations, living in the present moment, policing our thoughts in conjunction with breathe work all play a part in helping us achieve more balance in our lives. The relationship we have with our horses is greatly enhanced when we practice the principles of centering. As authentic leaders, the benefits of doing our best to also centre our horses are worth the effort.

Centering is a physical and psychological mode of being. Both states are interconnected and make all the difference to the effectiveness of groundwork and riding. In an organically formed herd, members naturally live centred lives in harmony. When we take our horse from the field, subtle dynamic changes occur in becoming a herd of two. In the wild, herd members are related or included with permission. This isn’t necessarily the case in situations where horses, strangers to each other, are added and familiar faces taken away. Horses are often turned out in same sex pairs or isolated in separate paddocks. The freedom to graze for lengthy periods of time and to choose a circle of friends isn’t normally available.

We may or may not be able to achieve the ideal environment for a horse’s perfect psychological health, but we can work towards the very worthwhile goal of keeping our horse centred during groundwork and riding. Straightness, predictable responses, and the reduction of adrenaline, which is always present in the anxious and unsettled horse, are three of many practical applications to helping your horse become more centred. We’ve been singing the praises of straightness training for decades; the value is so great, it’s hard to put into words. It is the secret sauce that links the body to the mind, and vice versa, and is fundamental to helping the horse experience mental and physical balance, (centering) during his time away from the herd.

602252_430161260402628_1550431717_nYou may have experienced glimpses of what this is feels like. Those unforgettable moments when you felt at one with your horse; when it felt perfectly ok to push the limits a little, perhaps setting off in a hand canter which normally you wouldn’t want to do. Or maybe it was when your horse stood perfectly still quietly looking at the view, happy to share a moment of stillness with you. If you’ve ever enjoyed your ride so much you didn’t ever want it to end or your schooling session was so soft, responsive yet relaxed you were over the moon, you were no doubt deeply engaged in that special moment.

To be inwardly centred is more than a destination, it is the journey towards attaining true balance and straightness. For weeks, months, even years, its emergence is fleeting, transitory, and short lived. Results are affected by environmental factors such as weather, location, and the quality of the company when riding together. Our frustrations, hopes, and fears undoubtedly have an impact on the nature of the ride. Management issues such as lack of turnout, excessive feeding to exercise ratio and hectic surroundings will also have a consequence on the horse’s ability to find his sweet spot with the rider.

Even gentle hacking provides a great opportunity to work on the principles of centering through forwardness and straightness. Accomplished riders with feel may do this without consciously realising it while others need to think through the process with mindful awareness. When I am riding, I see grids and shapes in my mind that act as imaginary boundaries and guides to straightness. I hear and feel a virtual metronome, a steady beat that adapts to the horse’s stride according to the level of his training, helping develop a solid rhythm and correct tempo in the paces. The horse’s stage of education determines the proximity and degree of latitude/longitude of the lines.

Physically and psychologically unbalanced horses, those that are green or have problems under saddle, naturally require more space around them. They are unable to keep within given parameters. They lack the ability to stay within the centre of the grid or frame. They wobble, drift and jump to the side or seek to evade. As they learn to have more control over their body, I mentally adjust –narrow – the width of the frame. The amount of space in front and behind is also defined for upward and downward transitions and rein back.

When the horse discovers the ‘spot’ or gets anywhere close to it, I immediately release/reward while maintaining absolute inner and outer quietness. It takes a while to make an association, but all horses seek that space where they feel at ease, even momentarily, without pressure. Since it feels good, our horse will want to return to that place for increasing periods of time. If a horse is never shown how to find comfort with the rider, he will feel impelled to keep moving around. Anticipation, impatience and a reluctance to stand quietly show us the horse lacks balance. For some, this is a permanent state of being attributable to the horse’s character. We know horses are not all the same, they are individuals with different temperaments and levels of sensitivity, but their need for comfort within the relationship is common to all.

The Greatest Skill

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Don’t bow to snobbery, writes Equestrian Journalist Simon Barnes : be proud of taking part in the most challenging riding discipline of them all. What is the toughest riding discipline of them all? Which is the most important, the most difficult, the most dangerous? I shall tell you: but first of all let me outline for you the dizzying array of skills necessary.

You need, above all, a sense of calmness and trust. Without that you won’t get anywhere. But you have to combine relaxation with a constant awareness of the considerable difficulties and dangers that surround you. You need to be able to sit in a way that fills the horse with confidence.

You need to master all the basic paces. Horse and rider both need to be relaxed at all of them, from halt to gallop. You need comfortable, instant lateral work, particularly off the right leg. You need calm, soft unfidgety hands. Your aim is to combine calmness and confidence with dynamic and forward-going movement at all paces.
You need your horse to cope with other horses, close by or at a distance. Your horse needs to be sociable when among strangers and friends yet happily independent when on his own. You need balance and control; but with a sense of freedom and adventure. You need to trust your horse in extreme situations. You must allow your horse to be a wild animal and express himself with joy and abandon and yet you must be able to bring him back to civilisation with a touch, a shift in balance, a word.

But above all, you need to understand each other’s fears; each other’s limits, each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You need to deal with situations that terrify a horse but hold no danger to him; you must deal with situations that terrify you, without imparting your terror to your horse. You must be able to deal with potentially life-threatening situations and to do so with great frequency. You must deal with them in a way that is completely calm and relaxed, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.
The reason you must bring out all these high skills in yourself and your horse is because everybody’s life depends on them. But then you must get used to the fact that your painfully acquired skills are held in low esteem – even despised in some quarters.

The discipline I am talking about is hacking. Nothing is more dangerous – yet more pleasurable – to human and horse alike. If you can hack out safely, alone or in company, you are a real rider!
If you can deal with such things as school buses, Volvo drivers, pheasants flying up at your feet, a long, long canter track, boy racers, fluttering paper bags, gloriously inviting gallops, pigs, cows, overhanging trees, fields of lunatic horses and the most scarey thing of all, the wheelie bin that wasn’t there yesterday, then you can count yourself a hacker. Or to put it another way, a very good rider indeed.

And yet, even if you are the master of all those things, your skills might be sneered at. So you apologise in advance – oh I just hack out. I’m just a happy hacker. What? Only a master of the most testing and demanding and dangerous discipline in the horsey world, that’s all. You have to defer to obsessive show jumpers, dressage queens of either sex and showing people who prefer polishing horses to riding them – all these people are too precious to take their horse out for a merry hack and who think they’re better than you on that account.

Let’s not be snobbish back, however. Every way of enjoying your horse that doesn’t harm him is alright by me. So we won’t ask what’s so marvellous about going round and round in circles and why it is so superior to a great cantering blast up the hill, and we shan’t point out that while a square halt is hard, it’s far, far more difficult to get your horse to stand still while an articulated lorry goes past. Especially when it then stops and whistles its brakes at you.

So let’s make this Hacker’s Pride Month. Say it out loud; I hack and I’m proud! We won’t be snooty about it though. We won’t say, I know the real reason you won’t hack out. It’s not because you’re Anky von Grunsven and Bonfire come again. It’s because you are ever so slightly scared. And I’m not; so I hack.

No, we won’t say it. We’ll just think it very quietly when someone looks at you with condescension because you’ve been for a hack while they have spent an hour trying to establish a leg yield. I’ve got nothing against leg-yielding myself but I do have a great deal against snobbery.

No one will celebrate hackers for their skills of horsemanship, their mastery of fear, their overcoming of horsey temperament, so it is only right that we should do it for ourselves. Salute the hackers! Damn we’re good.
And if you have any doubts on that score, just ask our horses!

LETTER FROM AMERICA –Why I travelled miles to attend a course a Mysafecobs

Ronan

Despite a lifetime of riding, including 20 years hunting and having owned many different horses, I had run into a metaphorical wall: My riding was never going to be at the level it once was due to increasing age coupled with weight gain, and its many attendant physical limitations, compounded by past falls that produced a fracture every time. Once upon a time I was young, strong, and relatively fearless! Not to worry, I was fortunate to have a totally made steady Eddie, a lovely old Foxhunter to keep me going. Sadly he suffered a major injury and had to be put to sleep.

So, the search for the next “perfect” horse began. I spend hours each day scouring horse sales sites on the internet. I asked everyone I knew for any information on a suitable horse, faithfully following up every lead. I didn’t think I wanted much, only a “bombproof”, big bodied, 16 hands plus gelding who I could ride on the buckle without ever getting fizzy or nappy. One with great brakes, who stands perfectly, doesn’t spook, hacks out alone, and goes first or last in company. He also had to be good to catch, tack up, load, haul, shoe, and clip. Oh, and it would nice if he were good looking too!

After eighteen months of fruitless searching for what was obviously a mythical animal, more elusive than the fabled Unicorn, I was seriously considering giving up riding. My poor, patient husband, who only took up riding so we could do it together, was left to ride alone; he wasn’t too happy about it either and gamely embarked on a four to five hour horse shopping drive every weekend to look at yet another super hot bombproof prospect that turned out to be anything but.

In my experience, and I’ve had a LOT, more fifty years with horses, dealers seriously mis-represent what they have for sale while most private people don’t seem to know what they have. Meanwhile, after too many bad experiences to list, what little nerve I had left trickled away. I found Avril’s site on the net and quickly became interested and intrigued with the content. I started reading her diaries and watching her videos. The things she did and said really resonated with me. Her combined Classical with Natural Horsemanship approach to riding and training got me thinking: I began to realise that perhaps the horses weren’t the only problem; maybe the problem was me!

So there here I am in England after day two of Avril’s course and finally I feel that I am getting my “mojo” back. It’s hard work and scary for someone like me who has gotten totally unfit and timid. As Avril says, “Riding is mostly mental,” and my thoughts were all about fear after so many falls, bad horse choices, and injuries. I was in no position to be the leader my horse needs so stay tuned for more on my transformation from total passenger to supportive leader!

CANTER EXERCISES WITH RONAN

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After the last post on our ride in the rain with Ronan, I was asked to talk about the relevant exercises to help him over a couple of specific difficulties in canter. Before I do so, I will need to back track for a moment so that you can better understand the building blocks, as the elements associated with a horse’s training can’t be considered in isolation because they are all connected. One leads to another like the diagrammatic branches on a family tree.

In the beginning, Ronan was the easiest horse in the world to stop. He still is most of the time except that something has changed. He now knows how to go forward and that it is expected of him. He is still hesitant from time to time, even getting temporarily stuck, but overall he is embracing “go.” Before we reached this pivotal point, at any pace faster than a walk, the slightest pressure on the rein would make him stop, often in his tracks. It wasn’t so much a case of slowing down; it was just as if an invisible handbrake came on. With everything else, his mouth had the sensitivity of a plank of wood. Despite that he is without doubt top of the class when it comes to standing still!

Before I could start work on transitions, I needed to move him beyond his former lack of confidence based mind-set. Some of you may have ridden horses like him who are hard to get going, and when you do, fizzle out the moment they feel the rein on the bit. A young, green horse is extremely impressionable, so much so that they quickly learn to associate a blocking hand with a sense of danger. That’s almost certainly the case with Ronan. He was entrained to think stop before he really got going, creating both an upside and a downside.

The upside is that his flight instinct is practically switched off. The downside is that now he knows how to go but hasn’t been taught how to stop! “But I thought you said he stopped at the slightest touch” I hear you say. That is true but what he did was Stop Going. I am teaching him Go to Stop! I hope this isn’t too mind-stretching but therein lays the key to unlock his brakes; the ability to go forward into a downward transition. Lumbering along on the forehand prevents true forwardness in stepping down through the gears. With bodyweight displacement almost entirely in front of the wither, it becomes physically impossible to slow down or stop on command. Horses can pull and lean on the bit in an effort to remove pressure from too strong a hand. They help balance themselves in this way too even though they can never achieve true equilibrium whilst carrying a rider.

To help Ronan understand how to alter weight distribution, there are several things we can do. We start by reining back a few steps. Done in the right way, this will temporarily lighten the forehand. If it feels right, we will go straight to trot. It’s worth mentioning briefly that riding is all about feel. It is hard for us to tap into this area of awareness. As a society, we are encouraged to develop left brain thinking associated with logic and rationality. We also have a watchful master in the frontal lobe responsible for critical thinking and judgment. It is in our right hemisphere and temporal lobes that we can access centres for feelings, sensory impressions, intuition, creativity, and instinct; essential tools for horse training. In describing the exercises there are many factors that affect how they are done. The weather, environmental considerations, my mood and health are all influencers. I always try to feel my way into the situation as much as I use analytical concepts for Ronan’s bio-mechanical responses.

With a little note on the training mind-set out of the way, we will continue. After a rein back or two, we move onto trot to halt transitions without leaning on the hand, or evading it by coming behind the bridle. The quality and tempo of the trot, even the way I sit will impact on the transition. All this is done by going back and forth in a straight line. If I am happy with the way he is going and feel the time is right, we can start working on the canter. This is often the hardest gait for cobs to master so results take time. Because they often struggle to go from trot to canter without rushing and losing rhythm, I will ask for walk to canter. This may seem back to front as it is more advanced but for Ronan and others like him, it is just the ticket. Initially Ronan just ran forward through the bridle, a completely natural reaction. To remind him of our previous work, we would go back to trot/halt transitions, possibly including some rein back. I never cease to be amazed by their intelligence. Horses learn to configure walk to canter quite quickly unless there is psychological damage or they have been wound up in some way like taking off as soon as their feet touch the grass.

Contrary to common belief, the most effective way to develop a balanced canter that can be stopped in an instant is achieved through transitions, not by keeping the horse in canter. Once Ronan is cantering, within two or three strides he needs to think about stopping. Walk to canter is hard but canter to walk or halt is harder still. The increased energy and momentum propels Ronan forward and thoughts of stopping are far from his mind. In order for him to understand that isn’t what is required, I must do what it takes to make the downward transition. The way in which rein pressure is applied has a direct bearing on how successful I am. Constant contact will encourage him to lean and pull on my hands. I use a combination of squeezing and alternating tension to get him to listen. As soon as I feel the slightest response, I soften and release. This is absolutely pivotal to achieving a good result and must be instantaneously executed. It is in this way that learning evolves. Any form of release brings its own reward but the value of praise can’t be overlooked. I make sure to congratulate him in a big way with pats and words of encouragement.

Like the trot to halt exercises, we go up and down in a straight line, repeating the sequence. In doing work like this, I need to carefully monitor his reactions. I don’t want him associating halt with being the precursor to canter. Any anticipation is deflected by interspersing with regular halt to walk. I also include voice cues which are highly effective in promoting trust and understanding. Working in straight lines involves turning each time a change of direction is made. A turn is a great opportunity to also bring Ronan off his forehand. Depending on the feeling he is giving me, I either ask for a pirouette or a turn about the forehand. I like to include more than one change of direction, asking for different types of turn on different reins.

Combination exercises like these really gets a horse thinking and listening. There are plenty of videos of our horses going quietly from walk to canter and back to walk in fields or forest with just the voice and little or no contact. Almost without exception, they learned how to do that from regular, consistent work on transitions, just like I’m doing with Ronan. It won’t be long before he is also able to shine in the same way. To do things like that time after time involves muscle memory which he doesn’t have yet. When he does, his responses will be automatic. At the moment I am planting metaphorical acorns, seeds I nurture so that they will grow into mighty oaks of desired response. Ronan’s days of carting me in canter will shortly be over because I am showing him how to control his body within different gaits. Every day he will become increasingly adept at going forward to slow down or stop. Although I’ve tried to keep everything as simple as possible, for most of us it is easier to grasp information visually. Once the weather is more settled, we will be creating detailed videos to show how to do this step by step. I hope this post is helpful for the reader and invite you to comment with your thoughts. We love to receive them!