"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Breakthrough?

I got to the barn late yesterday and honestly, now that I have the choice, I didn't feel like riding. Part of it was that I knew I wouldn't have enough time to get in both a productive ride on Lily and a productive longe session on Gracie before dark. So I decided to longe both of them. This isn't a very exciting post but something happened that I want to write about for me to remember later. I apologize in advance for the lack of photos: again my phone crapped out in the cold. -_-

I set Lily up with a pile of hay and her grain by the fence and let Gracie have her dinner while tacking her up with the Bungee Straightjacket. Once she was done eating took her out into the paddock that we use as an arena. I had the system rigged with the "side reins" attached directly to G-Mare's bit (not doubled back to the surcingle) for warming up and the longe line attached to her rope halter. I indicated to her in which direction I wanted her to go by pointing with the hand in which I was holding the rope and she strode off at her gait. She usually trots on the longe, but will sometimes gait when she's especially calm.

She moved out at the trot and after a few minutes I asked her to halt and then change directions. Once she was warmed up, I rigged the system by threading the "side reins" through the clips on the bit rings and back to the rings on the sides of the girth. This is for a lower headset. Because of the bungee, she can still lift her head as much as she wants to but the end result of this setup was her working in a round frame with her poll level with her neck. I made soft kissing sound when I wanted her to track up more and adjusted my own posture in the center of the circle to encourage her to work the way I wanted. I don't know if Klaus Hempfling's techniques will work with every horse, but my first breakthroughs with Lily on the ground were thanks to studying his work (traditional natural horsemanship methods like Parelli were too much for her in the beginning), and so I used some of what I had learned then with Gracie on this day.

I was surprised that, as she continued to move out on the circle around me, she never had her "dragon moment", where she flags her tail, blows loudly and bounces around at a lofty trot or crazy canter for several minutes. She usually does this at some point during the first 15 minutes of longing and when she does she gets hard to control as she pulls against the end of the line in ever-widening circles. Correcting her in any way when she's doing this will often make her very nervous.  It will take a while for her to calm down when she gets like that, and I used to think she did this in play but recently I haven't been so sure. It was good to have her not do it for once.

After 5 minutes working with the rig in the setup described, I asked her to halt, attached the snaps to the girth ring between Gracie's front legs, and asked her to move again. She chose to walk and so I let her, because she rarely wants to walk on the longe.

This setting had her stretching doooown, but she was lifting her withers and tracking up. I asked her to trot and she obliged.

And then Kathy walked out of the house and asked if I had my keys. I stopped and turned around to answer as Gracie continued trotting around in the circle. When I turned back to look at G-Mare, I realized that the second I had taken my attention away from her, she had come to a halt at the end of the longe line and turned to face me while still staying at the end of the longe. This slow grin spread across my face. Usually if I'm not 100% focused on her while working her from the ground, she'll try to run around and be a goofball. The fact that she had simply stopped and waited at attention when I stopped focusing on her was simply...huge.

"Good girl!" I told her. Both ears flicked forward. I asked her to continue trotting and she did.

For our last 5-minute set, I asked her to work with the rig in its higher setting:

She stayed calm and happy. I was very pleased with the horse I had before me: it was 30 degrees and she hadn't been worked since Wednesday but she was still very relaxed. I was thinking about how horses are so sensitive to our energy and became aware that my position had changed when Gracie suddenly came down to a walk without any verbal command. As an experiment, I let my breath out. And she halted.

So you know how you can do that from the saddle? You can totally do that from the ground too, and you can do it with the horse working at liberty several hundred feet away from you if the horse is paying attention. I learned it from Hempfling and it never ceases to amaze me. This was the first time that Gracie was synced in enough to what I was doing at the end of the rope to respond to such subtle cues. Horses are so freaking cool.

Hempfling working an Andalusian stallion at liberty
So basically this is the entire reason for writing this post, because I want to remember she did that. Because she might not do it again next time I work with her: this is just the stage that we are at in her training. But I want to remember that she is capable of this. I asked her to walk a little longer in both directions, then unclipped the rig from her bit and walked her out. She had not broken a sweat at all, so I went ahead and blanketed her but left her tied to the fence while I worked with Lily. We've all been making a point of getting G-Mare to wait patiently. She gets tied in the run-in for her meals and Kathy has been leaving her there for 20-30 minutes after she's done eating while Kathy gets other things done around the barn. Result? Now any time that Gracie gets tied up, she'll immediately cock a foot and take a nap. (Granted if it's dinner time, she'll wiggle and dance around until she's fed. Then she falls asleep.)

I put the rig on Lily, but only the surcingle with the breeching; I removed all of the other cords. I had tried it on her before and she had tucked her tail when she felt the breeching behind her butt. I very slowly slid it into place, talking to her all the time. Lily's head went up and she rolled her eyes at me, "What on earth..?" I told her I promised it was not going to hurt her, it just felt funny. I put the rope halter and snaffle bridle on her and clipped the longe line to the halter. I asked her to w/t/c in both directions with the breeching and she was, surprisingly, 100% fine with it.

I then added the "side reins", clipping them directly to the bit without doubling back to the surcingle so that they were at their very loosest setting (which means complete slack in the lines; she could totally put her nose to the ground if she wanted to with no restriction at all). Lily did w/t/c with them just fine too, which shows, again, how far she has come: any little string hanging from tack, flicking against her sides, would have made her very nervous in the past. She was a little worried about these new things but she worked willingly and obeyed my voice commands.

Once I could see that she had stopped paying attention to the lines, I set up the Bungee Straightjacket in the higher head setting, like what I showed in the photo of the bay horse above, but using the haystring extensions I added the first time I used this setting on Gracie.

Why was I using the Bungee Straitjacket with Lily on this day?
For two reasons:
1. It's more desensitizing. I had put the rig on Lily last week to take photos of it for Liz and when Lily flinched at the breeching, I thought, "We need to revisit this, if only for desensitization purposes." As most of my long-term readers know, Lily is an incredibly sensitive horse. The fact that she can now keep walking on the trail calmly despite having a branch stuck to her tail that she's dragging behind her is kind of epic: she's the kind of horse that previously would have lost her mind over something like that. I think the last time that happened was at Fort Valley and Liz pointed it out. And I was like, "It'll come off eventually." Lily kept right on trucking. So anytime I discover something new that bothers her, I try to work with her on it in a calm setting so she realizes that it won't hurt her. She's a funny horse in that you really have to find the right moment to expose her to things: if she's truly upset about something, there is no convincing her that it won't hurt her. You can't force things on her because she'll just become more fearful about those things. Horse-eating monsters must be introduced in an off-handed and roundabout sort of way, at a time when she is calm and I'm in a playful mood:  if I'm able to laugh about the situation, she is a million times more willing to accept that this thing won't harm her.
2. I've tried all sorts of gadgets on her throughout the years in an effort to get her to reach for the contact on the longe. She is the reason why I currently own one of everything: side reins, a chambon, a neck stretcher. The truth of the matter is that Lily really only ever reaches for the contact when it's my hands holding the reins.  Anything else and she would either brace against the contact, inverting herself, or curl behind the bit. The thing that has worked best for her is side reins set on the higher rings of the surcingle, which imitate the position the reins would be in if they were being held by a rider. There must be slack in the reins too or she'll just curl. I eventually stopped using even side reins when I realized that the underside of her neck was becoming more developed (this is incorrect and it's a result of bracing against the contact, even subtly), and then we just worked at liberty, which was the best way to get her to use herself properly. She is ewe-necked regardless, but her neck became more even once I stopped working her in any kind of longing contraption. On this day, I was wondering if maybe the Balance Training System, with its infinite settings and stretchy bungees, would somehow encourage her to reach into the contact.

Initially she shortened her neck. I asked her to trot out and canter and she elevated her poll and brought her forehead in line with the vertical, but she was still tense through her neck. She was doing this:

From Sustainable Dressage
Not correct, whether US or on the longe.
when in fact what you want is this in a more elevated carriage:

Also from Sustainable Dressage
Not a "frame" that you would normally work a horse in on the longe, but I'm referencing it because Lily was offering the incorrect version of this.
With some moments like this, especially if the horse is working on the longe:

Also from Sustainable Dressage

She moved out in tiny mincing trot steps so I asked her to canter and she relaxed into something more like the second picture in this series of illustrations, elevating her withers and tucking her haunches in a truly collected canter. She then stopped and turned to face me, asking to come into the circle. She was frustrated and wanted to be comforted. I let her come into the circle, rubbed her neck and told her she is a good girl, and threaded the longe line through the inside bit ring and clipped it to the top ring of the surcingle. Why? Not for more control, but to ask her for an inside bend: it was a way to show her that the bungees would give and also to ask her to relax at the poll at the trot. I then sent her out into the trot again, asking her to step out more, and moving with her towards the back of the paddock where it is flatter. With the longe line I asked for that inside bend and asked her to step to the outside with her haunches by altering where I was standing inside the circle (it is awesome to be able to communicate with her on such a subtle level. It took years to get to this point with her.) She started chewing on the bit in response and she relaxed. We did this in both directions then called it a day. It sounds like we worked for a long time, but I timed it: we worked for a grand total of 15 minutes. I wasn't looking to do fitness work with her; I just wanted to see her response to the Balance system in general and hopefully work her muscles a bit in a different way. It's funny to me how different the two mares are: Gracie is completely unconcerned with contact and will play with it until she finds the spot where she's most comfortable with while wearing this setup. I'm glad I followed my vet's recommendation to use it with her. Lily, while not afraid of contact when I'm riding, is afraid of it in general when it comes from any other source, be it another rider or any sort of longing contraption. I might put the rig on her occasionally in the future to have her work differently and see if she figures it out, but I don't have any real plans of working her consistently in it. She does great with contact US and I have no real need for her to learn to accept contact on the longe at this point in time. It's just something different to work with.

I asked for her to halt. She took a step forward then stopped, remembering she is supposed to wait for me to give her permission. I grinned at her and told her, "Ven aca." ("Come here.") She pricked her ears and came. I unclipped the bungees from the bit and stood next to her, scratching her neck. She went to stretch down twice, then stopped, thinking the rig was still attached. I laughed at her; "It's not attached anymore, silly. And you can do that even with it attached!" I moved my hands to remove the bridle and she started to take a step forward, away from me. "Ven aca," I said, and she immediately stopped and moved her head towards my hands. I grinned, revelling in the fact that she understands so much now, and removed the bridle. She immediately lowered her nose to the ground, then rubbed her muzzle against a front leg. I laughed at her, scratching her withers, and then we walked out of the paddock. She got blanketed and loved on, and I told her she had been a very good girl, putting up with my experiments. I put her out into the field first. She usually stops to drink water for a long time. During this entire time Gracie had been patiently waiting where she was tied at the fence, but had turned around to keep me in her sight. I went over to her and rubbed her forehead, which is her Favorite Thing, and moved her over to Lily's leftover hay to munch on while I finished putting stuff away: I didn't want to interrupt Lily's drinking by turning Gracie out.

Lily finished drinking but hovered by the gate, waiting for me to put Gracie out. Lily likes to know her whole herd is with her and will wait for every horse to be out. She's like a mom in her herd leader role, and it is really sweet to see. So I put Gracie out and they both walked away into the darkness. I turned off the lights, closed up the barn, and went home, really happy with the way things had gone with both girls.


  1. One of the first lessons any horse should learn is to stand tied. It's so much harder to teach an adult horse versus a baby and is seems you are making great progress with the Blonde bombshell. Also, congrats on the new connection with G-mare and her willingness to tune in to you. That's awesome and a huge step. Maybe next time she won't run you down.

    Is Liz looking at making a Bungie Straightjacket?

    1. My goal is to avoid any potential situation in the future where I could be run over by G-Mare or any other horse! Next time, I'm just stepping aside and letting her run. Or closing the gate to contain her.

      I've suspected for a long time that she has it in herself to be as sensitive as Lily to small body cues like that. The trick is to get her to pay attention.

      The tying has been a big thing with her from the beginning. I would tie her up and walk away to do other stuff. She would be really good about being tied in the barn but then not so much elsewhere. So this has been a really good learning experience for her.

      And you got your answer directly from Liz. :) She wanted close ups of the snaps and attachments to see how it all works.

  2. Wonderful break throughs! So happy to hear about them.

    I leave my two tied like that a lot, too. Griffin especially. I need to do it more with Q and have begun to incorporate more time standing for her as wel.

    And yes, Karen. I am!! The original fauxssoa never worked for Q but I think this may....updates as I go along. I'm still scouring the Internet for the best materials at a cheap price.

    1. Lily used to be wiggly in the cross ties when I first got her and I took to just clipping her in and walking away to do stuff like muck her stall or set up her feed. She'd eventually realize that nothing was going to happen. It worked really well, and I successfully used the same technique with other horses I was working with. People are always surprised by how tolerant Lily is of being tied for extended periods of time. I have every intention of having Gracie be the same way! :)

  3. You've shown me a piece of the puzzle that was missing in my mind about side reins, err, Lily did. See I've felt strongly that it's impossible to teach a horse about contact using side reins, because there is no living, giving being on the other end, just a fixed object. As you experienced, she'll duck behind them (the alternative being worse, leaning on them). I think side reins are appropriate for horses who already understand seeking contact. But Lily showed us that even though she seeks contact under saddle, she won't bother in side reins, there being no release/reward for doing so. I've seen some very advanced horses work well in side reins, not leaning or ducking, just working properly with the reins loose. Sustainable Dressage is a controversial site ("alarmist") but I got a lot out of reading it. Then again I agree with what she says about the Pessoa. I think the best thing about a Pessoa is the fact that the butt strap is there, giving the horse a sensation of where its hind end is, and for desensitizing. I know you used a polo wrap for this purpose a while back and I'm looking forward to trying that. What were your impressions of using the polo wrap?

    1. I've seen some people work horses really well in side reins and use them as a way for the horses to learn to accept a constant, steady contact. Some people argue for side reins to teach this because they provide a much steadier contact than the average rider's hands and the horse can learn to find security in that type of contact. I think the trainer's approach will also make a difference in the horse's response, but I also think it's an individual thing with horses as well. Lily has always been afraid of contact, probably due to whatever happened in her past, and now the only scenario she'll accept it is when it's my hands asking for it because she trusts my hands.

      The only reason why I used the Sustainable Dressage reference is because it was the only place I could find illustrations showing what was happening with Lily, and I like to give credit when I borrow another blog's or website's pictures/photos. I like the website but am aware that they are alarmists; it's one of those where I take away what I agree with and leave the rest. It's pretty much the same way I feel about natural horsemanship in general as well. I don't agree with any thought process that declares, "You will get these results always" or "This will always work if done this way always" or "This is always correct" or "If the horse is in this frame it is being deliberately hyperflexed." I don't think that you can apply the same rule/dogma/training method/gadget/what-have-you to all horses across the board and expect to obtain the same results always. Each horse is different, with different personalities, different backgrounds, different conformations, and different ways of learning. Just like dogs. Just like people. You can't really standardize any teaching/training method and expect it to always be successful.

      In regards to the Pessoa, I don't really like them. The original version and some of the knock-offs use regular non-stretch cotton rope which I know Lily would have had a fit about. I don't like that when the regular system is tight enough to hold the horse in x position, the horse gets hit in the mouth every time a leg moves backwards in the breeching. I will reiterate that I wouldn't have considered using the system at all if my vet hadn't specifically recommended it for Gracie's conditioning after discovering some weaknesses with all of the neuro exams. My vet is an equestrian as well and she comes from Ohio where most horses have/have had/have been exposed to EPM. It is really, really common there, and so if my vet wanted to ride, she was working with horses that were neurological to some level or another. She has a tremendous amount of experience rehabbing horses that were neuro to continue competing as hunters over fences, and I respect her opinions both as a veterinarian and a horsewoman, so I do as she recommends. The bungees of the system Karen sent me make the entire rig so much more forgiving, and I added the hay string extensions to give the horses even more room and give. I like the way Gracie works in it with the different settings, and it is teaching her to be more balanced with her body in different positions, and to pay attention to the person on the ground and to where her feet are.

      I used a standing wrap to imitate the breeching but I honestly saw no difference in Gracie's movement. I know other bloggers have used that method in the past with polo wraps and it made a difference in their horses' movement but it did nothing for Gracie. I say try it with Mara and see if it works for her. :)

  4. Glad you had a breakthrough! It is cool when horses are in tune with you and your body language!

  5. I've never had a lot of luck with Nimo in side reins while lungeing. He just won't seek contact. I do think lungeing is a good skill for a horse to have, though, so I work on it occasionally just to keep Nimo in shape for it. I'm glad that you're having success with it. I do believe that ground work of any sort can help the horse-human relationship and expand communication and your breakthrough supports that belief. I wish you more, especially because I've grown fond of Gracie even though I've never met her:)

    1. I agree with you on all counts! :)

  6. I hope my comment did not seem critical - I have quoted Sustainable Dressage quite a bit over the years but I never gave the site credit. Taking a Pessoa and making it elastic seems like a good way to convert it to a kinder tool for horses like Gracie. Mara is exactly like her - she cannot take the entrapment feeling, even though my side reins have elastic, she freezes up completely during transitions when she thinks they're going to fix her in a position. Hm, I wonder if I could finally teach her to accept a crupper if I added elastic?

    1. No, I really appreciated your comment Lytha. :) I was just going into depth about my views on the whole subject because gadgets of any sort can be so controversial depending on who you ask. I was trying to avoid a situation where someone else will jump to conclusions about why I do things. I'm sorry if I sounded defensive.

      Mara just might accept a crupper with elastic...it would give more. Maybe add some sort of elastic insert to the one you have?

    2. Gotcha.; ) Hey, let's discuss a couple of videos I found. I am curious what you think of these two examples of horses who seem to be doing it right.


      This one is obviously seeking contact - or checking to be sure he can stretch down, and then backing off, keeping them loose. He repeatedly stretches down to reassure himself where the reins are, and then works "behind" them. He seems to be moving well, the reins are adjusted so loosely he can get his head pretty high up or down if he chose. However the bouncing donuts really bother me, that simply can't be comfortable.

      Then I found another example of what seems to be an educated horse being lunged correctly in side reins - this one doesn't seek contact he takes it and maintains it. He certainly cannot stretch down, he seems confined to one position, but the side reins are not adjusted too tight, I don't think. If you watch through the transitions, he has no trouble balancing.


      (She takes forever to stop talking - skip to 3:20 or so.)

      I'm curious to hear your thoughts about these two examples. I honestly don't know which one I prefer.

      PS - I also found the trainer in the first video demonstrate the use of the chambon, and I really like how he uses it to retrain an upside down horse. Elastic makes the suggestion to the horse to stretch, and doesn't punish the horse when he doesn't. I actually prefer this to his side reins video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Tgvd84mIyC8

      I'd love to see examples that you find excellent. There are a lot of bad examples out there!

    3. Oh, I just found out the ArtToRide trainer was a student of Nuno Oliveira. Well now I think I know which one you'll like better: )

    4. These are great videos Lytha! The first two are examples of horses that are trained with different methods:
      a) Even before knowing that ArtToRide is a Nuno Oliveira student, after watching the gray in action, I am willing to bet that this horse is *probably* a master at self-carriage under saddle: he doesn't brace against, evade or use the side reins as a way to balance himself. I love that he knows exactly how he is supposed to carry himself in the side reins. It would be interesting to see if this carriage is his response to the reins or just his natural way of going. (And you are right: I like this horse better! :) )
      b) The bay has the quality of movement that is sought after in upper level jumpers or eventing. I'm going to guess that this horse had been trained using more "modern" methods where the horse is taught to seek and maintain the contact, which is exactly what he does. The reins are much snugger than on the gray, but he still has a little bit of wiggle room. I *personally* don't like the reins like this because like you said the horse is in more of a fixed position. A horse that isn't educated about contact will be more likely to evade the contact by either curling or going above the bit (back hollow, head and nose up).

      Chambons are one of those controversial gadgets. I used the chambon to help build up my old QH's swayed back and it did wonders for him. What I didn't like about the standard chambon version you find in the US is that it isn't elastic. I preferred the neck stretcher (similar concept but with bungees) because it has more give. The main issue with these tools is that you have to watch the horse's way of going to make sure they don't just put their nose to the ground or curl behind the bit while dragging themselves along on the forehand as a result of the poll pressure. Some horses respond better to this type of pressure/gadget than to side reins and viceversa.

  7. sounds like Gracie is starting to figure things out - congrats on the breakthrough!

  8. Thanks for including those pictures on head carriage, they are very helpful! I've been working on getting Quest's head carriage lower and I still have some difficulty in seeing what is appropriate and not. I know some breeds (e.g. Arabians) have a naturally higher head carriage but in my mind lower and thus rounded must feel so much better.

    1. I'm glad the pictures helped! And you're right: head carriage will be influenced by the horse's individual conformation.

  9. This is a great post and I'm going to have to come back when I'm not so tired to read yours and Lytha's comments more. :)

    I love tying horses to teach them patience!! I've done it a lot with Chrome and he will fall asleep while tied. Love it!

    Your comments about longeing and energy got me to thinking. Chrome is really sensitive and sometimes nervous about longeing. When I think about it... it's totally my fault. I'm very.... "strong" in my body language when longeing because of a very alpha mare I used to have... I have noticed when I chill out and stop being so demanding he calms down a lot and works really well on the longe. I wish his stifles didn't prevent us from working on it more. I'm not a fan of over-longeing (I love 15 minute sessions like you did), but I would like to be able to work on some stuff with him. I'm sure if I kept the sessions short it wouldn't hurt him, but I'm afraid to do it consistently enough to teach him anything for fear of hurting his stifles. Anyway I'm probably not making much sense because I'm half asleep. I'll be back. Your posts are so thought provoking. :D I'm glad you had great sessions with both girls.

    1. I'm constantly tying both of them and walking away to do other stuff. I love having horses that can stand tied for indefinite amounts of time without having a fit. :D

      I learned to longe with horses that required really strong body language too! Lily and now Gracie have taught me that sometimes you don't need so much energy to get them going.

      I have rehabbed horses with stifle issues and the new information is that you can eventually get them to where they can be worked in a circle. If you're working Chrome consistently, don't be afraid to add large circles when working him under saddle as this will help him develop all of those smaller stabilizing muscles around his stifles. For the longe, just walk a large circle yourself in the center: it will make the circle he has to travel at the end of the longe that much larger. This is how I always longe unless I'm deliberately looking to develop greater balance/coordination by adding smaller circles at the trot and/or canter. Still, the horse gets worked for only a few minutes in the smaller circle before being allowed to go back out into the larger circle so they can take a break. You can start with short sessions on the longe like you usually do and eventually add variety and make them a little longer over time as he gets stronger. Just more ideas for you to consider. :)

    2. Thank you!! I really appreciate the info! I did start doing some large circles while riding in the fall, but I don't feel like I'm riding consistently enough right now with the weather. I'm going to ride as much as possible this winter and then start again in the spring. I'll have to get him doing some circles so we can take lessons in the spring. Thanks for the encouragement!