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|
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.
|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.
|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.