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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lily's Return

As some of you are aware, Lily basically had a full 2-month break between November and December when I was recovering from my head injury. (For newer readers or readers tuning back in, the head injury did NOT occur while riding: I always wear a helmet (the photographer for the sidebar photo insisted I remove it for the shot; it got put back on immediately after the photo) and most of the time, an ASTM certified safety vest too. The concussion was a stupid pasture accident where I got knocked over backwards onto the only rock in the entire field.) One of my fears regarding Lily's extended break would be that she would become attached to her little herd of three, especially given that she had become the alpha after Fort Valley, to the point where it would be difficult to get her brain back into a working groove. I was hoping that the improved relationship we'd built over the last year and a half would tide us over.

Well, my theories were correct. Not only was Lily reluctant to leave her herd, her increased responsibility over the other horses trickled into the rest of her life: she felt like she constantly needed to be on alert, watching for danger to protect those in her care, and she didn't want to be away from the herd for long on the trails. She was much more high strung than she had been in a long time and for the first time ever, I was battling a mare that wanted to run home after trail rides to be back with her herd. It wasn't a food thing, as I usually fed her before going out on rides, as I do Gracie to prevent the same thing; it was an "other horses" thing. I had initially celebrated her becoming herd leader, as it meant that for the first time in her life she was confident enough to assert that role among other horses. I assumed it meant that she would be even more confident in every other aspect of her life. Herd dynamics can be personality-altering: it will affect a horse's behavior under saddle most of the time.

So I didn't ride her alone on the trails; I just rode her with Charles and Gracie so Lily could be worked at the trot. Trotting makes it easier to keep her focus on the trail and on me, and having a buddy helped her to not worry quite so much. The rushing home thing was still there, but every time she had a fit about wanting to canter home we would do things to mitigate the rushing: backing up towards home, halting and having to wait every time she wanted to rush, turning around and cantering away from home every time she tried to rush (for whatever reason this one is a great reset button for her when she's being especially argumentative), etc. I was always able to get her to walk home on a loose rein...not a leisurely stroll of a walk, but at least a walk where I didn't have to fight her every step of the way. It just usually tacked on an extra 30 minutes minimum to the planned length of the ride.

"Whyyyyy are we stopping? We're almost home!!"
And then we moved and Lily went through her usual attachment phase where she latches on to whatever horse is most familiar to her (in this case, Gracie) as a sort of security blanket in an unfamiliar environment. She has some weird abandonment issues (I swear she was weaned too early). Thankfully Charles had the first 2 weekends in Frederick off so we were able to take the horses out together and do stuff together so Lily wouldn't have anxiety attacks. Interestingly, in the new herd Lily had no interest in being leader and so Gracie, always being the bolder one, took the lead role in the temporary herd of four, with Saphira the paint and Sweet Pea the Palomino, two very sweet and submissive mares. Lily was happy to be second in command.

It affected their behavior on the trails together: Lily was quite reluctant to lead for our first couple of rides outside of the new barn, and Gracie was more than happy to assume that role, whereas before, when Lily was herd alpha, Gracie would refuse to lead. I think it's fascinating how herd ranking can affect dynamics elsewhere. We rolled with it in the beginning as Lily got the hang of things in the new environment.

I took Lily outside alone once during this time and I had no "go" button whatsoever. She had lost all confidence in herself and while she trusted me enough to walk forward when requested, she refused to trot. We made it as far as the neighbor's field with the old horse and the mule (I've referred to this one ride a couple of times now; this is the official write-up right now), which is literally the property next door...and Lily refused to budge: she wanted to stop and stare at the mule specifically. Never mind that the mule was at the back of the 5 acre pasture on the other side of the road...those long-ears might kill a horse, you know.

That's the mule on the right. They were even farther away than when I took this photo.
I know what happens if you let Lily stare at something for too long: she can blow up. Which can involve rodeo-worthy bucking.

Not Lily
This really is Lily...
You get the idea.
So I kept turning her head to face the road in front of her as I requested her to continue walking. She would take one step at a time and try to crank her head to stare at the mule. It was ridiculous: I ended up pony-kicking my formerly uber-sensitive creature just to get her to move forward one reluctant step at a time. And then she said, "Oh hell no!" and started marching backwards away from the neighbor's property towards home.

So I said, "Oh hell no yourself!" and swung her around so that she was still backing up, but away from home. To my surprise she kept up the same lively pace that she had had prior...until she realized what was happening and she said, "FINE. I will stop now." We had a backing up impasse, where every time one of us was facing the direction the other was wanting to go, we would back up away from the direction the other wanted to go. It was a situation where, 2 years prior, my anxiety levels would have skyrocketed but Lily was simply being a stubborn mule herself and I was bent on winning the argument. I stayed relaxed, laughed at her ridiculousness, rewarded every tiny effort on her part with a "Good girl" and a pat on the neck, and continued working her until we FINALLY made it past the neighbor's field...thanks to mini leg yields down the road. I rode her a small ways down the road, trotted 5 steps, and then called it a day and walked back home on a loose rein.

Of course the mule was not an issue on the way back home. -_-

I tried not to stress about this, since this was the first time Lily had been off property by herself since before Fort Valley...which was back in October! Some backsliding was to be expected. I just hoped that we wouldn't be pony-kicking on the trails whenever we were alone for the next few months! Ugh!

A week later the girls were integrated with the main herd of 12 other horses, where both Lily and Gracie were solidly in the upper middle of the rankings. I ventured to take Lily alone outside of the farm again to go do hill sets on the road...and it was a complete non-issue.

The day Charles and I found the way down into the river, Lily led about 50% of the way. While riding on the road past the river, Gracie wanted to go in front and Lily, who had been keeping a nice steady trot, kept slowing down to defer to her.

"No," I told her. "I want you in front, so you stay in front." I gave my boot a light tap with the whip once and Lily hopped to it. I didn't have to repeat the request that ride...or ever again since.

Things got much, much better after that. Not that they had been bad, but I'd been a little nervous about Lily's partial regression. We had worked so hard to get her to the point where she was last year! It was a relief to see The Sane Mare make a full comeback in such a short period of time.

We had a spectacular hill set workout last week where Lily started sort of "Meh." It was enough that I debated cutting the session short if she wasn't feeling peppier by the 5th rep.

I have failed epically at getting a photo of said hill...but this is the spot at the bottom where we would turn around to canter back up.
Well, by the 5th rep she was hauling ass up the hill, going faster and faster on the way up with each consecutive run, until she was full out galloping by the time we hit the 7th rep. I got to practice my two-point! And then we had a close encounter with an ATV, where Lily was an absolute ROCK STAR...but I decided to take the rest of our workout to the hill at the back of the neighbor's field just to play it safe and stay out of the way.

Lily trotted towards the neighbor's hill and the second I unleashed her onto the bottom of it, she lunged up towards the top with such force that she almost popped me out of the saddle! DAMN I'd forgotten she could gallop like that! She came back down to a trot at the top of her own accord, and we power-walked back down the hill. I grabbed the breastplate wither strap for the last two runs!

And then she walked all the way home on a loose rein, like the mare I came to know and love while training for endurance last year.

Oh, and she was in the S-hack. No bit!

Walking back home. Yup, she was looking at the neighbor's mule, but she had no concerns about walking onto the grass on the left shortly after I took this photo. :)


  1. First, I love the new terrain you are riding in. It makes me feel at home. There is something about wide, open spaces that sets my heart aflame. I love the pics of the river every time you post it and I can't wait to see it in person.

    Second, I think it is really hard to maintain a great connection under saddle if there is no consistency in the ride schedule, which makes coming back from an enforced lay off (concussion, weather, injury, etc) especially difficult. I am very impressed that it took two rides at the new place before Lily was comfortable and settled in with you again. That says something amazing about your bond. Emotional turmoil plays a huge role in determining how our horses respond to us and to outside stimuli. You had two barn moves in a relatively short amount of time, and she has had to adapt and fit in to two different herd dynamics in that time as well. I think it says a lot about how she feels with you that she made the adjustment to this new barn in what seems like a short amount of time.

    Finally, I am really impressed at her hill sets. How long is the hill? I am trying to find a place where I could do the same thing with Ashke, but am not sure what a good distance is. One of the great things about the East-West Trail is the hills, but that's too far to go to do hill sets once a week.

    Third, it is nice to have a second horse that helps bolster your horse's confidence.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment, Karen!

      I think all of the mental and physical training we did in preparation for her first endurance season last year did wonders for her. And for our bond as a result, as I got to know her in pretty much every scenario imaginable and she got to see that I would always be there for her. I was the one constant.

      At another time, it would have taken her a month after a barn move to be settled enough to be rideable without major drama!

      The hill is about 1/4 mile in length, so one turn up and down is half a mile. It's steeper than the bridle path hill at the barn where we started our endurance conditioning prior to Kathy's, but not by a lot. The footing, however, is impeccable: it is packed down dirt road. Even when the fields are mush, the road is rideable. So we've been doing hill sets there when the footing elsewhere is terrible. :) The neighbor's hills are better: much steeper, but shorter - it takes Lily 5 gallop strides to get to the top. The bestest place of all, however, is the big hill through the pastures that border the river. That hill is maybe 1/5 of a mile long and it rises out of the ground at a 60-degree angle. It is kind of insane, given the length and the steepness. As you get to the top, you get the eerie sensation that you're going to go over backwards. I expect to eventually graduate to *that* hill, but not yet. Haha!

      In terms of workout length: I do 10 reps for longer, not-so-steep hills. It usually takes me about half an hour and the distance on the GPS ends up being 5 miles. We do nothing else that day: she gets to walk home and rest immediately afterwards, as it is a very intense kind of workout. For shorter, steeper hills you can just do it by time: 15-20 minutes to start. As for gait and speed, it will depend on how he feels and the terrain: for the road hill, I start out trotting up and walking down to warm up those climbing muscles, then trot up and trot down, then canter up and trot down when she's feeling really good, then canter up and walk down if she starts to lose momentum. For the neighbor's steep little hill, I was having her walk down because of the steepness. At the height of her fitness, we will be doing 30 minutes total with 20 of those minutes doing canter up-trot down. I try to do weekly hill sessions when possible (especially now that I have so many to choose from!) but in the past I've gotten away with hill workouts every other week or even just once a month.

  2. Glad Lily has made a return! She certainly has quite the bucking capability... I'm impressed.

    1. It's a pity she didn't enjoy jumping. I seriously considered eventing her when I first got her. She has mad hops.

  3. I love the relationship you have with that horse <3

    1. Thank you Dom! <3 It was hard work getting here but it was so worth it!

  4. Fun post to read! Have you read anything by Sally Swift (Centered Riding)? I really want to because I read a blurb in another blog about something called "soft eyes." It refers to how we (riders) look at things that our horse might be looking at. For example, on the trail, your horse spots something scary far a way and they become that "statue" of fear, I tend to tense up and stare at it too, almost waiting for the blow up. Two things occurred to me- I need to NOT look at it (unless it really is a monster or a horse eating bear) and move my eyes elsewhere, relax, breathe, and ask my horse to do something else (which you did.) My trainer was helping me with my mare last month and as we were riding around the arena two walkers went by way, way out on the road. My mare froze, head up, watching these horse eating mini-monsters, trying to figure out what they were. My trainer shouted- don't let her do that! She had me disengage her hindquarters and start moving off in circles and work on turns. My mare kept trying to look back at the walkers but really they had nothing to do with us, where we were, or our ride and I had to let her know that. I was able to get her focus back. This kind of work, for that green horse (who I have since sold) would be really important when dealing with trail riding. Some things on the trail you can approach head on and "sniff" out to know they aren't bad, other things are just far away visually scary things. BTW, Lily sure is a pretty girl!

    1. I haven't read Sally Swift, but I have read Mary Wanless and trained with a student of hers. I believe their philosophies are very similar. It was life-altering for me; completely different way of visualizing my riding!

      It's interesting because it completely depends on the horse: my first horse was the kind that *needed* to investigate the things he was startled by. Once he'd touch it with his nose, he was fine and he never looked at it again. Gracie is the same way. For far away things I need to keep her attention, like you with your mare and me with Lily, but for things that are closer, she will refuse to budge until she has been allowed to investigate the offending thing. Once she's seen it, she's like, "Oh! Okay. Can I eat the grass next to it?" Silly horse. With Lily I can't do that: even with things close at hand, if I acknowledge them in any way, she sees it as a confirmation that it must be dangerous.

      I read somewhere that herd members will "point out" danger to the leaders, and it is up to the leader to decide whether it really is dangerous or not. If the leader reacts, the herd runs to safety. If the leader continues grazing, the herd members settle down. Of everything I read, *that* was the MOST important tidbit of knowledge in figuring out this horse. That's when I stopped looking at things Lily worried about and when I stopped being hypervigilant about things she might worry about. I just focus on the trail ahead of us. And that was the moment when she finally started trusting me under saddle. :)

      And thank you! :D

  5. You wrote:
    "Herd dynamics can be personality-altering: it will affect a horse's behavior under saddle most of the time."

    I hadn't thought about it much in just this way, but now that you mention it, I find this so true!

    My BestBoy (who is self-appointed herd lookout & protector) will go out anywhere, anytime, & be within a razor's edge of perfect every time. Contrary to his easy demeanor, the 3 mares seem to have a rotating leadership position & there are definitely clues to where they currently rank at the moment by how well (or poorly) they behave when riding out alone.

    1. You're absolutely right: mares in a herd seem to shuffle around more in terms of ranking, and from what I've seen so far, I think mares are a little more affected emotionally in other aspects of their life by their position in the herd. It's very cool that you've noticed that too!

  6. ahhh mares... nice job working through it tho and glad you got your horse back again!

  7. It's funny how herd dynamics affect their behavior in all other aspects of their life too! I am integrating my boys into a larger herd next month and I'm pretty nervous about that! I'm impressed that Lily returned to her brave self so quickly!