If it seems like I haven't been doing much with Gracie myself, that's not necessarily the case. Charles has been doing the brunt of the riding but I've been doing about 8 million other things with her.
When I first started working with Gracie, I focused a lot on the riding aspect of her with some groundwork and longing here and there. There were reasons for this: G-Mare was obese and generally weak, and I wanted her to lose weight and get fit.
And then we moved to Kathy's barn and it became MUCH more important that Gracie's ground manners improve for everyone's safety, especially at feeding time. She was the kind of horse that might hurt you in her frenzy to snatch grain from a bucket in your hands. So we worked on the meaning of "Back up" and "Wait" and on generally respecting personal space when working closely with her. Kathy and Zoe both helped immensely with achieving this by day in and day out reinforcing the rules that I initially established.
I now have a mare that is MUCH more polite about food than she has probably ever been in her life. I can even give her an occasional treat without worrying about being frisked for more afterwards, which is pretty amazing. I honestly never expected to cure her of that particular bad habit but it's happened. The time at Copper Penny Farm was vital in Gracie's development as a civil citizen and learning that humans are NOT giant treat dispensers!
However, the pasture accident where I ended up with a concussion showed me that we still needed to do MUCH more in the groundwork department. So we spent the winter doing groundwork and working on manners on the longe while working on her balance over questionable footing in the Bungee Straightjacket.
|The famous Bungee Straightjacket aka Balance Training System.|
|Black Mesh Sheets of Death.|
The gravel was delivered the week after and Philip, BO's hubs, covered the sheets up with it to create a parking lot for the boarders.
I believe these sheets are used as weed deterrents.
I always enjoy watching herd interactions because I always learn something that I can apply to my own communication with my horses. The herds at this farm are all made up of incredibly well-socialized individuals that get along with minimal ear-pinning and drama which is part of the reason why Gracie and Lily have risen to the tops of the ranks effortlessly: no one argues with a mare glare. Gracie calmed down significantly as a herd member while at Copper Penny Farm; at the previous farm where I met her she used to have to constantly fight the abusive herd leader who would randomly rip chunks out of the other mares in the field, completely unprovoked. Even Lily, who wouldn't hurt a fly and was at the very bottom of the totem pole back then, was not exempt from the abuse of this mare.
|All those holes on Gracie's butt were bite marks from the mare at the barn where I met Gracie. (Yes, she was still fat in these photos; these were taken in April of last year.)|
Except when it comes to food. NO ONE steals Gracie's food...except for Lily. She might share her food with Lily because Lily asks politely. (Which just shows yet again Lily's ability for winning over most other horses...)
The other day I fed the mares in the field. All I had to do was swing a lead rope to keep the other Arab herd members at bay; they are such respectful, wonderful little horses at this farm. I could go on and on about what a good job the BO, Elena, and her trainers do with them.
|Polite Crabbetts. <3 them!|
|This guy. I couldn't get over his tiny, delicate ears. And yes, he did let me touch them!|
I believe his name is Sunshine, which totally suits him.
And this confirmed to me that, while most natural horsemanship trainers out there will say that a horse showing his hindquarters at you is showing defiance, it can also be an indication of fear where they are guarding their front end. Not necessarily guarding it by showing their hind end with the intent to kick (though you should be careful anyway: of course if a horse is fearful enough it will kick!) but more in a sense of hiding their front end with the rest of their body. Getting "bigger" in your body language to curb this type of show of hindquarters is only going to intimidate the horse further. (Which is why I have issues with some of the "trendy" natural horsemanship techniques/trainers: you can't standardize a training method. You have to be able to read the horse so you can adjust the technique! Which is also why I don't really follow any one natural horsemanship technique: I have fun trying different things until I figure out what works best for each individual horse.)
While I was still mulling over how to best approach my work at liberty with Gracie without intimidating her and still being effective, Dom posted this awesome video of her work with Booger. Go watch it, as it will totally inspire you to do groundwork with your horse!
Gracie has been an interesting horse to work with because while at times she seems like a lazy, stubborn, bossy creature when you initially try to do things with her, she has a sensitive streak almost as big as Lily's. She is also very smart and gets bored easily: she doesn't respond well to drilling and will start making her own assumptions about things if you aren't able to keep her attention. After years of working with pushy OTTBs and training my own stallion from scratch (Lucero), my biggest challenge with Lily was toning down my body language to the point where she would understand what I wanted: she responds to the tiniest of cues. A lot of times it feels like I'm communicating with her telepathically. Lily is also a perfectionist and is happy to work on something until she gets it right, as long as you PRAISE even the smallest attempt. The more praise you give, the harder she will try for you. It is also very important to take a step back the second she starts to seem overwhelmed or frustrated.
When I first began working with her last year, I started out handling Gracie as I would have most dominant horses: with BIG body language. This worked in the beginning, especially when it came to teaching her that she MUST respect people's personal space. She did not understand the "back up" command and initially seemed genuinely hurt that I would force her out of my space. This is when I realized that rubbing her shoulder or forehead was the biggest reward I could give her. This horse loves being touched so much that she will actually stop eating (her most favorite thing in the world) if you stroke or brush her forehead or neck. So it was fairly easy to teach her a solid "Whoa" on the longe line by rewarding her with a forehead rub.
|"Yes please, touch me. Don't stop!"|
Gracie can yield the hindquarters all day long with a cue as small as me pointing a finger at her hip, but I could NOT get her to yield the shoulders the way I wanted. I could get her to move forwards and away from me if I walked towards her shoulder, but not sideways away from me, which is an awesome thing that I taught Lily with minimal effort. Lily can sidepass with me or walk down the length of an arena in shoulder-in with me on the ground if I turn my body exactly right. Originally if I tried to walk towards Gracie's shoulder while keeping her from moving forwards, she would either stay rooted to the ground or back away. I tried tapping her nearest front leg with a whip, a tap or push on the shoulder with the whip or hand, and using BIG body language at her and all I was succeeding at was confusing her. So I had given up on this maneuver for the time being figuring it was something we could revisit once other things had fallen into place and we understood one another better.
Enter the Booger video. Booger turns in for changes of direction and defaults to facing Dom whenever she's not moving unless Dom has requested she do otherwise. I think Gracie has the potential to be almost that engaged with groundwork if I dot my i's and cross my t's properly with her: she already whoas and stands at attention facing me as long as she is at the end of a longe line or lead rope (not so much at liberty). Lily was honestly my first real experience doing solid, consistent groundwork with one horse: thanks to her respect of any type of fencing, even a longe line used as a temporary barrier, I was able to convert one of the paddocks at the FL barn into a 60 ft square pen for our "round pen"-type liberty work. Since then, I had not had access to a round pen + avid interest in using it until arriving at the current barn.
So I talked to Dom about how she had achieved those inside turns with Booger, as I felt this would be my "gateway" with Gracie to more advanced groundwork, and I revisited the shoulder-yield request with G-Mare.
I put her rope halter on with my 12' lead rope and took Gracie to the small outdoor arena at the barn. I let her run around and get her energy out first. She used to take off at a mad gallop on the longe when I first started working with her. She wouldn't try to pull away from you, but she'd tear around with no regard for the footing or amount of room that she had to work with. I was never sure if she had been trained to work this way initially, if it was her assumption that this is what I wanted, or if there was some fear involved. When I was first getting to know her, it seemed like she was just goofing off. Later on I came to the conclusion that there was a fear response from lack of direction; she improved rapidly once I started demanding more of her on the longe in terms of changes of gait, of speed and of direction. She has gotten SO much better now: she understands the purpose of longing and we can even do interval training while on the longe because she has improved so much in the use of voice commands. On some days she is ready to get down to work right away, and on others she needs to blow off steam for a few minutes before she is ready to settle down and focus. This was one of the latter days.
We then started reviewing whoa. She was snappy in her responses, coming to a sliding stop from whatever gait she was at, turning to face me while still remaining at the end of the line, so I requested changes of direction and then changes of gait. Once she was happily moving around me at her big swinging walk, I approached her. Using a longe whip with a missing lash (lashes upset her), I pointed at her hindquarters to get her to yield, which she did appropriately. I asked her to back up and then follow me. I had her walk next to me, stop when I stopped, and walk backwards when I did, which is something that we have been practicing since December. More yielding of the hindquarters, and then I walked towards her shoulder slowly, deliberately, and clucked. She shifted her weight for a moment and I tapped her elbow with the side of the whip.
And Gracie stepped sideways away from me!
LOTS OF PRAISE.
|Repeated some of these later with Charles so I could sort of illustrate what I'm talking about.|
Moving laterally and diagonally away from me when I walked towards her shoulder.
She was so good and so relaxed overall that I just had this urge to hop on bareback with just the halter, something which I've never done with her. Bareback yes, but not in a rope halter.
Ever since the whole pasture accident incident, I've felt more comfortable riding her bareback with minimal accoutrements. Don't ask me why, as I have no logical explanation for it. I have not ridden bareback consistently for any length of time on any horse since I was 16. The urge to start riding Gracie without a saddle came completely from left field and I've just gone along with it.
I grabbed my safety vest and helmet, looped the lead rope around Gracie's neck and tied it back to the rope halter, and hopped on, using one of the benches by the arena as a mounting block.
Gracie stood still, waiting for a cue.
She walked on when I asked her to. Mind you, I had not ridden her bareback since Kathy's. I'd only ridden her two or three times since moving to Frederick over 2 months ago. Once in the arena, once on on the trails, both times in full tack. She's been in regular work all this time but I just had not felt like riding her that much. And here I was riding her bareback in a rope halter.
Mind you: the outdoor arena at this barn has no fence. She could have taken off and gone wherever at any time, something that she would have attempted in the past. She didn't even think about it.
We ended on a very good note. I took these pics of her after the ride.
|I was so immensely proud of her.|
Our next ride was on Friday of this week. It was chilly and neither Charles nor I felt like riding. I had decided to give Lily the weekend off and so I ended up deciding I wanted to hop on Gracie. The temperature had dropped 30 degrees and it was quite windy so she got tacked up for this ride. I did a quick review of the ground work we had done last time, left her lead line attached to the ring on her halter-bridle, tied it around her neck with a bowline knot, and hopped on.
I rode her in the arena initially. One of the boarders walked by with Penelope, Gracie's personal groupie from the mare field (a younger OTTB that is being trained to be a polo pony; she follows Gracie everywhere she goes in the mare field!) and Gracie became very distracted and threatened to blow up. Instead of staying on and arguing with her, I immediately hopped off, undid the knot in the lead rope and had her yield all over the place at the trot in both directions. The groundwork we've been doing for the past few months paid off tenfold: she was SUPER responsive to my requests. It got her attention right back onto me and it only took a couple of minutes before she was again 100% willing to do whatever I asked.
I hopped back on and decided to take her out onto the road. Lily has been having some separation anxiety issues with her sister so she was tied to Elena's 8-horse gooseneck trailer by the driveway with plenty of hay and grain so she could stuff her face while I worked with Gracie out of sight.
Gracie tried hard to drift in Lily's direction when I pointed her down the driveway, which I had been expecting as she had tried that stunt with Charles last time he rode solo. So again I promptly dismounted and immediately made her move her feet. I ultimately ended up sending her first down the driveway (another achievement; I had not yet succeeded at doing this with her up until this moment!), praising her all the way. Why send her first down the driveway? So that it would make it feel to her like it was her idea. It was also a way of empowering her: "I believe in you so much that I will follow you down this driveway that you're afraid of." I asked her to whoa at the end of the driveway, where I let her stand and rest for a few minutes. She stood next to me, completely at ease. Once I felt like everything that had just happened had sunken in, I mounted up again.
I had a completely compliant horse after that. No more arguments whatsoever. She can be highly opinionated during the first 10 minutes of a ride and I just didn't feel like trying to work her through that from the saddle. Hopefully it's a behavior that we can curb easier now with the addition of groundwork during naughty moments. I have my theories as to why she is like this, but we shall see. It's either testing a rider that hasn't been on her in a while (which I totally get, given that she is still a fairly green horse and what I used to consider defiance is more insecurity: she needs to know she will get direction from her rider), a discomfort response from the bit (her teeth just got done on Saturday; more on that in a minute), or she has some more limb soreness issues that need to be worked up (I'm having the vet check her hocks at the end of May as I do have my suspicions.) Or a combination of two or more of these.
We rode all the way up to the long hill that we normally practice on, then back down to the barn driveway. She wanted to rush up the driveway but every time she tried I asked her to halt. Which she did, though she let me know that she wasn't happy about it. Once she stood still, I would ask her to walk. If she rushed again, she had to stop. She got the idea very quickly!
We did one turn around the barn roundabout and off we went back down the driveway again. She was kind of horrified at having to go out again but instead of trying to throw a tantrum, she simply halted. I was okay with this response. I gently urged her forward, creating a tunnel with my aids so she could only go forward, and she obeyed. She stopped every couple of steps to let me know she didn't really agree with this but I praised her for not trying to blow up. We made it back onto the road and continued up towards the other hill.
We turned around at the top of the hill and returned to the barn. Another turn around the roundabout, and back down the driveway and out again onto the road: no complaints/halting/protests this time! She just walked right on out. GOOD GIRL. We gaited towards the second hill again. I turned her around sooner this time and she walked home on a loose rein, all the way up the driveway. I rode her down to the outdoor arena where Charles was sitting on the bench talking to Elena who was gardening nearby.
We did a couple of laps around the arena and then called it a day. I was so happy with her and my communication with her. It felt like I had addressed each of her questions and insecurities spot-on for the first time ever, and she had really tried for me.
The next day, Saturday, Elena was having her whole herd done by a local equine dentist so I had Gracie added to the list. My vet had said I should have her done in spring (she hadn't been done in two years, since before she became mine, and I had Dr. H check her) so the timing was perfect. It would also help answer my question about whether she wasn't having some sort of mouth pain with the bit.
I got to the barn with the intention of just doing groundwork with Gracie. I have struggled to get G-Mare to trot/gait next to me while I jog (she doesn't see the point), so I put the send command that she had just figured out together with our version of the shoulder yield and FINALLY succeeded at getting her to trot next to me by having her trot a circle around me and then sending her forward in a straight line as I jogged off next to her. One successful go and we switched to something else. I put the command together in a different way and had her going in shoulder-in around the arena in both directions. All of this took less than 10 minutes. And again she was so relaxed that I just wanted to hop on bareback. So I did, again with just the rope halter and lead rope as my bridle. We worked for 20 minutes alternating lateral work at the walk with long breaks where I relaxed my hips and back and let her stretch out into her huge swinging overtracking walk. She stuck her nose out and down like an old QH gelding and was as chill as I have ever seen her with a rider on her back. She was so relaxed, in fact, that I finally asked her to gait. And she complied: she didn't try to zoom off, she didn't try to break into a trot, she didn't fuss or swish her tail angrily. She was in a rope halter! She simply lifted her head and gently stepped off into her most collected gait and we rode around in this manner in both directions. Any shift in my seat and she would go back down to a walk: not a bad thing as I was figuring out my own balance while she gaited.
Elena came out of the house while we were working and complimented Gracie on how relaxed she looked basically working tackless. She said only a good horse can be ridden in this fashion while still remaining so chill. I agreed.
Another session finished, I swung off and took Gracie over to the trailer so she could eat hay while I put stuff away.
Yesterday, Sunday, I arrived at the barn to find a lot of stuff going on: Elena and Philip had visitors, the goats were all near the barn (they have been spending most of their time out in the pastures with the arrival of spring), the chickens were being fed, Elena's two dogs were running around playing, Philip and one of the other boarders were working on landscaping with heavy machinery. All sorts of commotion and distraction.
I brought Gracie out and started with groundwork. She yielded whatever body part I asked and I decided to complicate things a bit. I wanted her to pivot on her haunches if I walked towards her cheek. She doesn't know to move away from me if I walk towards her neck/face, so I picked up the lashless longe whip and very carefully and deliberately walked towards her cheek. I clucked. She stayed sideways from me (she didn't turn to face me) but looked at me out of the corner of her eye questioningly. I held the whip out lengthwise (point facing straight up) and tapped the crown strap of the rope halter once with the side of the whip. Gracie responded by moving away laterally one step. Praise!
We worked on this a bit. In one direction I could get her to almost pivot on her hindquarters (when asking from her left) but it was tougher from the other. I could get her to pivot on her hindquarters while following me with her forequarters and maintaining slack in the lead rope, which was pretty cool.
|Yielding the forequarters while turning on her hinds.|
I tried what Dom does in the video, where she holds the whip on Booger's opposite side to bring her closer laterally. I didn't expect Gracie to respond correctly, as that is a pretty advanced move that I've never seen anyone else do, but I wanted to see what her interpretation of the cue would be. She yielded her forequarters away from the whip and ended up on the opposite side of both the whip and myself. (I'm not sure how to describe that clearly and sadly I don't have pics.) Basically her interpretation of the cue was to change direction. Not the response I was looking for, but not an incorrect response based on what she knew so far. She didn't take off or move away from me, she simply turned the front of her body away from both the whip and myself, then stood waiting to see what would come next. Good girl!
I realized I needed to show her how to move laterally away from the whip before I could expect that specific cue to work.
So I stood about 4 feet away from her, facing her, slack in the lead rope. I extended the whip out, holding it lengthwise parallel to her body. She watched it with one eye and one ear.
I gently moved it towards her. She moved diagonally away from the whip and towards me. I asked her to back up politely.
I point the tip of the whip at her chest.
We repeated this a couple of times, me slowing the cue down more and more so that I could have enough time to bring the whip GENTLY forward and block Gracie's forward momentum.
Once I got those requests right, she understood. We slowly side passed in front of one another across the arena, one step at a time. BIG PRAISE.
|Side passing to her right. Didn't have to touch her with the whip anymore by the time I did this for Charles.|
|...And to her left.|
I debated hopping on bareback but there was so much going on around the barn that I didn't feel comfortable without a saddle. So I tacked Gracie up in the Alta without the sheepskin cover (closer contact without it) but left her in the halter. I had absolutely no qualms about riding her without a bit even with the particular circumstances on this day.
We warmed up as on previous days, with lateral work at the walk and then some slow gaiting. Gracie was as responsive as she had been with me bareback, so I decided to do the unthinkable and took her out onto the street.
In the rope halter.
There was absolutely no faltering as she went down the driveway. We rode off towards the bunker house then turned around and followed the road up to the nearest hill. No arguments at all. She never once tried to stop and turn around like she has attempted in the past when she feels insecure. She offered up her gait and I allowed it. She chose to gait along high-headed but she was relaxed so I didn't fuss at her over her carriage. She did try to decide which lane of the road we were going to be on and I asked her to stay where I asked her to, and she obliged. We turned around at the top and rode back down the hill. Halfway down she slowed to her big swinging walk. As we came even with the barn property, she tried to dart off to the side to be by the property fence line but I had her one-rein stop and then swung her around and cantered back up the hill.
She walked back down quietly afterwards: not even a thought of an argument. I was THRILLED with her. All of this in the rope halter!
Nearing the barn driveway, Elena drove by in the utility cart with one of the visitors. Gracie paid the cart no mind, but then one of the dogs trotted down through the tall grass by the driveway and hopped onto the road. G-Mare had not seen him and was completely startled when he materialized on the road behind her. She gave a huge jump with a dragon snort and kind of did a mad scramble in place but it lasted all of one second. I'm not sure what I did when she did that but I must've done something right because she came to a perfect square halt and waited for my next request. I asked her to walk on, and so she did, quietly up the driveway.
I walked her out on a loose rein in the outdoor arena.
One of the visitors was tremendously impressed with her. "That's a good horse right there! I can't believe she was so calm with everything that was going on!"
Yup, I knew she had that in her when I first started working with her! It's good to see her slowly becoming more and more consistent in her behavior.
She is nowhere near being close to Booger's awesomeness, but these little steps forward with her have been huge! SO PROUD OF HER!!