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

Saturday, August 8, 2015

On Groundwork and Magic

I owe you guys a massive Gracie update. Because while doing bandage changes and midnight antibiotic dosings and stall cleaning and haynet filling and working insanely busy 12-hour-turned-13-hour shifts (I hate summer when it comes to work. Because maggots and dog fights and hit-by-cars and all the sorts of major traumas that only happen during the warm months when people spend more time outside with their animals) and rushing to the barn to meet the vet (there were FIVE additional vet visits after Lily was home, two of them on an emergency basis!) and you know, driving 25 miles one-way to work and finding the time to eat (so many times when I ran out of the house in the mornings to the barn and completely forgot to eat, then didn't have time to stop to get something on the way to work after and then it was too busy at work to eat CUE HANGER) and get some sleep..I was still doing my best to find the time to work with G-Mare.

Our riding was very limited. If I was too tired or not in the right mental place, I was not getting on her. It would have been counterproductive: she would have gotten worked up and I would have taken it personally.

So we did groundwork. Lots and lots of groundwork. I've come to the point where I feel as safe on the ground with Gracie as I do in the saddle (which is a truly remarkable thing, given the concussion she caused last November, and it also says a lot about the amount of work we've done on the ground since then) and we've been having a LOT of fun with groundwork. I used to think groundwork was boring until I started working with Lily back in 2011 (a phase that I sadly failed to document on the blog) but Gracie has brought it to a whole other level. At the moment, I actually enjoy working with her from the ground even MORE than I do riding her! She always manages to surprise me in one way or another, in a good way.

I had a great ride with her with Gail and Nimo the weekend after Lily had returned home. Gracie was an absolute rock star. It was my first time riding her with someone else other than Kathy. Charles has ridden her with me + a variety of other people, but other than one TROT ride last spring, I had yet to ride her with other people w/t/c myself. On our ride, G-Mare alternately led or followed or rode next to Gail and Nimo, no problem; we explored a whole new trail that we discovered; we crossed a new section of the river she'd never seen before; we crossed train tracks and led up the hills. I was impressed with her fitness: she has come a long, long way from the out-of-shape Mareface she used to be when I first started working with her over a year ago. She was recovering within a minute or two of uphill gallops, which is a first for her and by the end of our 10-mile ride, she looked like she could have gone out and done another 10  miles minimum.

And that was pretty much the last time I rode her for most of the rest of the Lily Leg Novel.

The next time I went to the barn, I started working her in the round pen. I rarely have a plan when it comes to groundwork. I usually start and see what she has to offer. This was the first time she majorly surprised me.

In the round pen.
I usually walk a large circle in the center of the arena whether lunging or working the horse at liberty. It's one more way for me to control the horse's movement: if I stop, the horse stops. If I want the horse to accelerate or extend their stride, I move with more energy in the center of the circle. Lucero taught me to work a horse like this: if I wasn't moving in the center of the circle, there was no way in hell he was moving at the outside of it! Which is why I am incapable nowadays of just standing still in the center. I know this is against a lot of natural horsemanship methods out there, but it works for me and my horses.

On this particular day, Gracie just wanted to fart around and play and go fast. She was completely ignoring my requests to slow down or change direction. She just wanted to gallop around and around. Not fearful at all; she was just being a goof. Any attempt of mine to get her to change what she was doing was only being used as fuel for the fire. Instead of getting annoyed at her, I finally just said, "Fine. Run as much as you want." And I stood very still in the center of the round pen, arms crossed in front of my chest and staring up at the top bar of the round pen fence. No projected energy at all. I pretended like Gracie wasn't there at all, much less running around and around in circles.

This caught her attention RIGHT AWAY. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her go, "Wait. Why aren't you looking at me?" And she started to slow down. She'd speed up every time she passed in front of me and I saw her looking at me, trying to get my attention. I continued to ignore her. She finally came to a stop at the fence behind me, then walked up from behind and touched my shoulder with her nose.

I burst out laughing and turned to face her, telling her what a good girl she was and rubbing her forehead.

"I iz a good girl?"

"I can approach you, yes?"

"Touch me..."

"...or I will eat your phone!"

I tried sending her back out to the wall so we could do more focused work. Except she didn't want to go out to the wall, she wanted to stay with me. So when I shooed her away to go towards the round pen wall, she actually moved laterally away from me. In a perfect shoulder-in. At liberty. My jaw dropped. It wasn't what I'd wanted but it was something BETTER. So I tried to see if I could get it on command. I cued the shoulder-in with my body the way I do when she is at the end of the lead rope. She repeated it. So we did it in both directions. We went through the set of exercises we've come up with that I documented in this post...all at liberty. Including the one where she stands in front of me and mirrors my movements.

I later set her free in the big arena and discovered that she was happy to repeat all of these exercises all over again in a larger space, still with no lead rope to connect us.

It was magical.

Every day I was at the barn for extended periods of time (aka not work days) I either longed G-Mare on one of the many hay field hills for fitness or took her out to the big arena to play, often to kill time between Lily's treatments.

She is Master Tailer. She loves it. She doesn't do anything stupid like try to take off or turn away from me and she'll turn wherever I ask her to go. She'll tail both up hills and down hills and going towards home and away from home. For whatever reason, Weirdo gets a kick out of leading me wherever I ask her to go. An ear always stays cocked in my direction. The problem now is that when I'm leading her she'll try to pass my shoulder, "WE'RE TAILING YES? YOU GRAB MY TAIL AND I WILL LEAD YOU YAY!"
And I have to be like, "Gracie BACK. Sometimes I lead!" as I swing the end of the lead rope towards her nose to keep her at my shoulder. But it's hard to not laugh at her anyway.
We had this one epic session where one of the girls that helps out at the barn was working with Simba the Shetland in the round pen nearby and Gracie decided that tiny horses are carnivorous monsters and she must act like an idiot:

Not a hackney.

And not an Arab.
I have the papers to prove she is full-blood RMH/KMH! :)


A beautiful idiot, but an idiot nonetheless. She was dragon-snorting, flagging her tail and doing this huge airy trot that made her look more like a carriage horse...or full-blooded Arabian...than a Rocky Mountain mare. I laughed and laughed at her and took a million photos...and if you look closely, as I did at the time, you will see that despite being all worked up about the Shetland, her inside eye and ear are still on me pretty much the entire time. Even with her being at a whole other level of "up", I could still get her to stop and turn and change directions with minimal commands.

So we continued practicing this in future sessions.

Our next session at liberty in the big arena Gracie again surprised me, this time by closing the circle around me. She was trotting and cantering at liberty in a 30 meter circle as if she was at the end of the longe line. I realized that if I lined up my shoulder with hers and modulated my movement and energy inside the circle, I could get her to close the circle even more, so that she was basically trotting and cantering a 10 meter circle around me. Project my energy out and stride out larger, and she would move back out again.

This is the type of stuff I have only ever dreamed of achieving with a horse. I just didn't know how to ask for these things, but Gracie is teaching me how.

I asked her to stop and come to me. I rubbed her forehead and then walked away. She walked with me. On a whim, I took off running...and she trotted with me! At liberty! Staying right at my shoulder. I stopped, she stopped. I took off running again and again she trotted after me. I was grinning like an idiot.

I later told Charles about it and he said, "I've done such a great job training her for you! You should thank me."
Cue major laughter from me. Sure Charles. ;)

In future sessions we have been able to repeat all of these things. I've tried videoing but my phone is at death's door and has repeatedly crapped out before all of the really good parts. Have some video stills:

Driving her out towards the fence.
She had closed the circle here. Note my outside shoulder: it is lined up with hers.
I'm holding the lead rope in my hand but it is not attached to her halter. I'm gently swinging the end of the rope in my left hand to move her away from me in a shoulder-in.
..and "whoa; come to me!"

Charles's work schedule in July was all over the place. His weekday schedule varies greatly anyway and he works every third weekend but in July he was working part of some weekends to get extra overtime (because vet bills $$$$$$) so we weren't getting as much time off together. About 2 weeks after Lily was home, he was able to come out to the barn with me on a weekend.

I convinced him to tack up Gracie and bring her to the big arena while I mucked Lily's stall (by this point she was in the stall with the run, which was located in the "old barn" next to the big arena.) The plan was for me to do some groundwork with her and then hop on for a quick tune-up (since she had been worked but not actually ridden in over 2 weeks) before Charles took her out on a solo ride.

Yes, sometimes we ride in shorts around here.
Because sheepskin saddle cover.
And sneakers.
Because stirrup cages.
Who says gaited horses can't do a collected canter?
Letting her work in a more lengthened frame.
I had Charles get on and I gave him a 10-minute lesson, in which I taught him how to get G-Mare to do her most collected canter. He then took her out and was gone long enough that I ended up calling him, "Are you okay?" He was. He doesn't wear a watch so he had lost all sense of time. He'd been gone for almost an hour!

He came back bubbling with stories about the trail and his ride and Gracie. I listened to him and grinned on the inside. I think someone is hooked.

The next day, he was still talking about Gracie.

"I hadn't realized I had missed her," he said. "I missed riding her and just hanging out with her. Like really missed her."

I looked at him with the biggest grin on the planet and before I could say anything, he realized what he'd said. "This is YOUR fault!" he exclaimed. And we both burst out laughing.

The next time he was out at the barn with me, I asked him to do the same thing. Except he forgot and tacked up Gracie and rode her over to the old barn. I was standing inside the barn talking to a former boarder who is an avid trail rider and still helps out at the barn when Charles canters up, Gracie's mane flying, and comes to a halt in front of me. Inside the barn.

I shooed him back out from inside the building, because we all know you're not supposed to be on a horse while inside a barn building (though the ceiling in the old barn is really high) and couldn't help thinking, "My knight in shining armor just arrived." :)

"What was the plan for today?" he asked.
"Same as last time," I responded. "Except you're already on her and it looks like she's behaving, so go out and ride."
"Yay!" he said. He turned Gracie and they gaited away.

That day he would do 1.5 laps around the farm, mostly at a collected canter. I didn't know about the cantering until after when he told me about it. He cooled Gracie down appropriately and she looked like she could have gone out and done it all over again.

Note: The route he took was about a grand total of 7 miles. He did it at the canter! I think a certain mare is VERY fit right now!

The whole reason why we did Gracie's joint injections was to prepare her for Ride Between the Rivers in Elkins, WV. It was going to be her debut and Charles and I would ride together in the LD, and get to hang out with Dom, Liz, Sara and Mary. But with Lily's bandage changes and extra care, I ended up cancelling. As it was, the ride coincided with her starting full turnout, but she was still on antibiotics twice a day, which required twice daily barn visits. I also didn't want to just dump her in the field and leave for a long weekend: I wanted to monitor her leg closely during her first few days of turnout.

We both had all of this time off (we had both changed schedules in advance to accommodate the long weekend so that we would neither miss work days nor need to use up vacation time) so my mom was able to come visit at the last minute, which was awesome because we got to do stuff and give her the tour of the Frederick area. We had a blast with her, especially since my mom and I are super close and I hadn't seen her in 2 years.

Of course I took her to the barn and showed her all the stuff I have been doing with Gracie at liberty. This was the first time showing anyone what we have been doing. It's still not documented in detail with photos, but the fact that we could re-create it with an audience is pretty major. I usually get nervous/distracted when people are watching me work a horse at liberty but G-Mare loves extra attention, so there's that. ;)

I rode G-Mare in the rope halter, w/t/c and transitions canter-halt-gait. I then slipped the bridle on her and had Charles get on so Mom could see him ride. She's seen photos of course, but it's different to see it in person.

City Boy rides like he was born on a horse.
I mean, dude! Look at Gracie's engagement at the canter in this photo!
I had to show him off!

He chose to ride her back to the new barn (the new barn is the boarder barn) while Mom and I drove back in the truck. This was Lily's second day back on full turnout in the field with the mares.

Charles took the back trail through the hay field towards the new barn. As we pulled out into the driveway we saw all of the mares running towards the fenceline. Towards Charles and Gracie, who were zooming up the bridle path alongside the mare field at a canter.

You know Dom's profile picture, of her galloping Ozzy by a fence line with two horses on the other side of the fence line galloping up behind them? It was like that. I had a second where my heart went into my throat, thinking Gracie might bolt or act up, but then she didn't. And then I just wished I had a camera with a long lens with which to capture the moment because it was so beautiful!

Charles and Gracie rounded up by the grass berm next to the driveway at a rack, while Lily and the other 4 mares cantered along next to them on their side of the fence, Lily broncking away, bucking and kicking up her heels (her leg was fine afterwards). G-Mare was completely unfazed. She listened to Charles and came to a stop at the hitching post, where he dismounted, loosened her girth and then walked her out on foot.

Ummmm color me impressed. Majorly.

Gracie graduated in the Taking Care of Charles Department, right then and there.

The next time I was out at the barn, I worked G-Mare in the big arena. I had this idea of riding her bareback and had brought her bridle with me. Her brain was in a good place and so was mine, so I slipped the bridle on and hopped on.

I was in shorts. This is the second time I've ridden bareback in shorts out of the water. We used to take the horses swimming to Wolf Lake in the summer in FL, and that was done in shorts, bareback.

Me on Lily at Wolf Lake in Davie, FL, with my friend Diane on Mark's gelding Beau.
But the last time I rode on dry ground bareback, in shorts, I was 16. I was on Lucero. I had had a bad day in school and was upset about the world, so I hopped on Lucero bareback with what I was wearing at the time, which was shorts.

We had a great ride that day. But I ended up with a MAJOR rash on the bare parts of my legs from Lucero's sweat and hair. Thus why I had only attempted it again in the water, with no issues.

On this day, I climbed up on G-Mares back and was surprised by the fact that I stuck. With bare legs, I felt Velcroed to her back.

We did some walking to warm up and for me to find my seat. But I realized I didn't need to "find" my seat because I felt so secure. So after a few turns around the arena with circles and figure 8s at the walk, I asked her to gait. Gracie stepped out into a trot instead...and I had no problem sitting it. We did several turns around the arena in both directions at the trot...and then I cued the canter.

I have not cantered bareback since I was 16, and even then, it was never on cue. Lucero did not canter: he could speed rack up to 30 mph but "canter" was not in his vocabulary. If I wanted him to break gait I had to point him up a hill. Then he would gallop...which is the closest thing to a canter that I had been able to do bareback with him. But always going uphill in a straight line.

This was the first time in my life that I cantered bareback on cue. Gracie stepped out into her collected canter and I realized that it was even easier to sit bareback than her gait and trot. So we cantered and cantered. And then we halted, changed directions, and cantered in the other direction.

To say I was grinning from ear to ear is an understatement.

I walked her out and then swung off to open the arena gate...and then decided to just ride her bareback back to the barn.

She was absolutely perfect.

Oh, and her bridle? No bit. She was wearing the flower hackamore. :)

Bonus: did not get a rash!

So yeah.

She's come a really long way.


  1. Totally love this entry. It makes me extra sad about everything that's going on with Booger right now, because we just got to the point where I could keep her circling within touching distance at liberty in the big arena. You are accomplishing sooooo much with Gracie! It's awesome to see. It helps that she's gorgeous too. And, for what it's worth, I think moving around the center of the circle is way more effective than standing still. Standing perfectly still and sending the horse may work if you stay in a round pen forever, but it won't do you any good in the real world! Keep the updates coming :)

    1. All of the stuff with Boo-Mare makes me extra extra sad because it was you and her that set all of this in motion. I think of you two all the time when I'm working with Gracie. One day I would love to find a way to either bring you here or take G-Mare to you so we can take a groundwork lesson with you. There are some things that I have no clue how to train to do and I'd love your direct guidance! :)

      Re: moving in the center of the circle - Thank you Dom!!! I had a trainer once reprimand me for walking in the center of the circle while lunging...said trainer was a Parelli fan and her own personal horse was notorious for walking all over people...so I continued to do what I want. ;)

  2. I LOVE ALL OF THE PHOTOs IN THE POST. And its so funny...when I got to the one titled SPROING I was thinking SPROING and then scrolled to see you'd said the same thing.


    And DUH, Carlos did all the trianing lololololol. I really do love how involved he's become with her and how much more time you two are gaining together with all the horse stuff. So awesome. The next Dean and Dawn Hilliard you two.... Masters of the trail! He rides so well. I'm so happy he has his own horse. Give it alittle time and I bet he's trying to go out even when you can't just to ride. You've made a monsterrrrr lol

    So, I think you've told me before....but why the long time period between times riding bareback/bareback in shorts??

    1. Re: "Sproing": you're rubbing off on me. ;)

      In my teens, I used to break out in hives if horse sweat touched my skin. Yup, I was that allergic to them at one point! (I kept riding anyway! :D) I discovered this the hard way that day that I rode Lucero in shorts: I had the itchiest rash on the inside of my legs for the next 24 hours. It left an impression!

      I rode bareback again, just not in shorts. My bareback riding on Lucero ended for the most part though when I got dumped by him...he was arguing me about going forwards so he decided to back up instead...right into a fence. He was so focused on arguing he didn't realize there was a fence behind him, so it took him completely by surprise and he scooted forward. Which took me completely by surprise and I went flying...I somehow landed underneath him, on pavement. He managed to leap over me without stepping on me but I had a bruise on my shoulder from the pavement for a couple of weeks. Ouch. It was the only time I came off of him. I rode him again bareback during one of our island visits: he had gotten too fat for his girths to fit so I went without. (The barn staff did get a talking to about overfeeding him and it was corrected)

      I rode Cloud bareback but only walk and trot. Rhythm was ridden bareback, but only at Wolf Lake to go swimming. I don't know how I stayed on him when he had that bucking fit out of the water...I've talked about that one on the blog before. I was given a standing ovation. Lily was ridden bareback at Wolf Lake also, but the one time I tried riding her without a saddle at the barn (after we had moved to MD), she started bucking the second my butt touched her back. I had no mane to hold onto and I went flying. That was the last time I rode bareback until Gracie. :)

      So yeah: I've had pretty bad past experiences with bareback in the past. And with shorts there was the rash problem, which thankfully didn't happen this time around so YAY! Though I've ridden in jeans for our most recent bareback rides. :)

  3. Gracie is really moving up in the world! Good pony! I can totally identify with the bareback cantering. I rode Paige bareback a couple weeks ago and I think my seat was better at the canter without a saddle.

    1. I'm discovering that to be true too!

  4. It made my heart so happy to read this about Gracie. It seems like you have wonderful relationship with her (and so does Charles!).

    I actually have added more bareback rides to my repertoire lately! My balance is not what it used to be as a teenager haha

    1. I totally hear ya on balance as an adult! Apollo must be awesome to ride bareback though. :)

  5. awww Gracie is doing so well!! you must be thrilled with how far she's come - nice work!!

    1. Very thrilled indeed! Thank you Emma! :)

    2. Very thrilled indeed! Thank you Emma! :)

  6. So great that Gracie is doing so well, beautiful photos! :D