When Enough is Too Much: Reflections on Joy, Moderation, and Gratitude

Baby Monarch, beginning training, age 3

Baby Monarch, beginning training, age 3

I was thinking about my most recent post, “Achieving Goals,”  in the context of “Character Forming,” by Cavaliere Attitude.  See:  http://cavaliereattitude.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/character-forming/

Setbacks would seem to be inevitable in the course of training.  Winter set in before I could remedy the setback I experienced this fall. Watching Monarch grow up, I’ve noticed that he would rather trot than use any other gait.  In the field, at play with other horses, even at feed time, his preferred mode of travel is trot.  Teaching him to canter under saddle was a challenge.  His resistance manifests as a buck.  He’s been checked by vets and bodyworkers; he’s not lame or sore.  Last year my goal was to develop smooth and balanced canter transitions.  Beginning last February, when I had access to an indoor arena, through the better part of last year, I pursued that goal. Working on my own in the winter, with my gifted trainer in the  summer, and taking two clinics in the fall, the canter became more rhythmic, more forward, more collected and the transition became balanced.  I thought Monarch’s resistance was finally a past memory. Then, on the last day before my trainer left for her winter sojourn in NZ and after a fabulous schooling session, we pushed him too hard and the buck returned.

Horses are generous, sensitive souls, who give completely of themselves when they allow us to ride and train them.  Training must be done with joy, moderation, and gratitude.  When I asked for “one last canter,”  I knew immediately I had violated the tenet of “moderation.”  I could have better focused to accurately read our state of being.  I could have said, “no, I think he and I are done.”  I could have better concentrated and prepared him for one more canter.   Now my trainer was gone, and I set about to solve this setback on my own.  I needed to address the issue promptly: a day off to rest and a schooling session the following day.  From Monarch’s response, I knew he felt that I had violated not just the “moderation” tenet, but the “gratitude” tenet as well.  Throughout the schooling, I worked on developing rhythm and suppleness to get him into a smooth canter. Each time I asked, he bucked. Rather than rewarding the buck by backing off, I pushed him through the buck into a canter circle.  Repeating the transition, the bucks diminished to kicking out with the hind leg, and finally to a quiet, if unenthusiastic,  canter transition.  As a reward, I praised him, we rested in the walk, and he got to stretch his back.  Then we changed direction, reestablished rhythm & suppleness, and I asked again for a canter transition from trot.  And the cycle began again: buck, kick, canter. We did many trot/canter transitions that day, each cycle beginning with a buck.  I was very aware of “moderation,”  so when I felt he let go of his resistance, I stopped the canter work, praised him, and did some lovely trot work to end on a good note.

The next day my back was very sore. Over the years, I’ve sustained injuries, and I’m not young anymore. I have a back condition that I exercise to keep supple.  To help both of us, I took him away from the school for a relaxing trail ride.  Through the pain in my back and the regret in my heart for making a poor judgement, I felt discouraged, back to square one where I had left off the previous winter.

Fall didn’t last much longer. I rode him a few times, (with bucks) before winter set in. The bucks grew fewer and less opinionated, so I think we were working through our “discussion” about Monarch’s dislike of canter work. Then winter set in with a vengeance- bitter cold & snow for two months. It’s still stormy, but not so cold. The arena thaws during the day. I’m getting a space mucked, so I can do some groundwork.

Yesterday, we had a lovely ground session. My goal was to reestablish a sense of partnership.  Without a way to separate horses for a liberty session until a full thaw allows the paddock gate to close, I chose to do some horsemanship with lead and halter.  Monarch was responsive to those simple activities, so I thought I’d ask for some walk-trot transitions.  The other day he offered some lovely collected movement, so I thought I’d see how he was feeling.  I hadn’t planned to ask for more because a lead rope and halter only allow for a small circle.

He was quite responsive, so I thought we could play with the size of the trot steps.  I could make the circle larger by walking with him, so I asked him to lengthen his step.  Instead he offered a beautiful collected canter, fluid and balanced.  Best of all, he was relaxed!  Thinking about “joy, moderation, and gratitude,” I praised him for his lovely canter and returned to the trot game.

I brought him back to walk and then to trot.  As I shook the dressage whip to encourage him to lengthen the trot, he became upset and responded with a rear and a buck. Using my NLP coaching practice, I responded with calm curiosity.  Is he upset because he’d rather canter than lengthen the trot?  Hmm, that’s an interesting switch.  Is he upset because I asked too strongly with the whip?  I’ll bring him back to walk and ask more quietly.  Is he out of condition?  Do I need to better establish my leadership role?  As he reared, I said in a quiet voice, “no, that’s not what I asked.” The quiet reassurance settled him; almost immediately his focus and willingness returned to me. Back to walk, then to trot, now lengthen.  With a quieter whip movement, I asked for a lengthened step, and again he reared-bucked.  Again my calm response, helped him to quickly settle. “No, that’s not the right answer; I asked you to please show me how you lengthen your trot.”  I brought him back to walk, asked for trot, then asked ever more subtly to engage, and he lengthened. I praised him profusely.

When the trot had consistently improved, I thought I would see whether he would give me another collected canter. Though I was a bit reluctant to ask, wanting to avoid an argument, I felt he was prepared to canter. With quiet intention, I asked for canter.  The transition was very relaxed, and the canter was beautifully balanced. By setting him up for success, I felt I was building his confidence.  We did a few canter transitions on both hands.  I gave him lots of praise, rubbed his hairy neck, and released him from the halter.  Instead of heading back to the barn, he stayed with me.  I walked away, and he followed.  He was respectful about my space and waited for me to encourage him to come closer for another rub.  Only when I left the arena, did he return to the barn.

Monarch has been mine for the past ten years, since he was two.  He came to me out of a field of yearlings and two year olds.  He hadn’t been handled, but sensed in me a kindred spirit.  Originally, I went to his farm to see and ride an older, more trained horse.  I didn’t plan to buy a young horse that needed to  grow up before training could begin.  I didn’t pick Monarch; he picked me.  As I think back on all that we have accomplished over the past ten years, I realize that we have come a long way. Monarch has been “mas-o-menos” resistant in the canter throughout his training. The episode last fall is a set back, but we are not losing ground. We learn each day. I will continue to muck my arena to have a bigger schooling area. I will continue to connect and bond with my horse. I will continue to use creativity to solve challenges in the training. I will continue to use groundwork to build his confidence in the canter. Then I will take him to my friend’s round pen for our renewed mounted canter work. He seems to feel safest there, and I want everything to be calm when I mount and ask for canter.  When he settles into consistent canter work in the round pen, I will return to regular schooling and dressage training.  A cowboy once told me, “the slow way is the fast way.”  Monarch teaches me to “make haste slowly,” as I practice “joy, moderation, and gratitude.”

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Achieving Goals

The following are study guide notes for Solo Schooling by Wendy Jago.  For non-equestrian subscribers, read these coaching/motivation notes with your non-riding goals in mind.  Substitute the horse for a coworker, family member, teammate, or your passion, sport, advocation, etc.

Part III, GROUNDWORK;  Chapter 9, “Getting What You Really Want,” discusses the strategy of using the Dreamer, the Realist, and the Critic to achieve your goals.  My goal is to have harmony with my horse, Monarch, and for us to develop as dance partners.  The strategy of clarifying my goal from these three perspectives makes the goal achievable.  The Dreamer keeps me motivated; the Realist gives me the tools to develop steps to reach my goal; and the Critic allows me to dispassionately evaluate my goal & my progress.

harmony in the dance

harmony in the dance

How to achieve my goal of developing harmony & dance partner using the 3 perspectives:

Dreamer-  My horse greets me in a friendly manner; we groom, tack up; and I mount.  Our connection is strong; the communication is subtle.  The warmup tells me where we need to release tension & relax.  I drop my left ankle, grow tall, breathe, and he releases his right jaw, steps under his belly, and focuses into my seat, breathing, & intent. Communication becomes intuitive.   Our dance is effortless, fluid, graceful, and expressive.

Realist- I use groundwork to establish a partnership of trust and connection.  This can include: horsemanship with rope & halter, lungeing, and liberty rituals.  As I groom & tack, I assess my horse physically and mentally.  I mount with intention, communicating with weight & breath.  I use the warm up to develop rhythm and relaxation.  We begin at walk & trot.  As my horse’s muscles  begin to warm-up, I put the focus into my body:  where am I holding tension?  I breathe into my tightness, asking  my body to release, balance, and follow my horse’s movement.  When my muscles have relaxed, his muscles have warmed up, & he is relaxed, I change my posting rhythm to tune Monarch into following my rhythm.  We play with different tempos.  With rhythm & communication established and my body suppled, I develop my horse’s suppleness with poll flexions, neck bending, changing directions, and some lateral work.  I will then ask Monarch how forward he feels.  If needed, we will work on getting him hot to a light leg.  When he is supple and forward, we will develop rhythm and relaxation in the canter.  We are now in tune.

I let go of my left brain and develop a dance.  With my right brain, I listen to Monarch and feel the rhythm and flow of the movement.  I see directional lines in my mind’s eye and feel movement in my kinesthetic right bright based on what we are doing and how that will flow into a new movement or direction.  I need to stay intensely focused on what Monarch is telling me and how my body feels to keep the flow.  If something doesn’t work out, we will keep moving.  I will take note of what didn’t work, but we won’t stop to drill.  I will find another place in the dance to do it again with more preparation, intention, and/or balance.  All movements will be performed with joy, moderation, and gratitude.  We will rest & stretch often.  I will refocus myself and my horse after each rest break.  We will end on a positive note, eager to do it again tomorrow.

Critic- Developing a strong connection after so many weeks off may take my horse a week or even a month.  (It takes as long as it takes; make haste slowly).  In the course of our dance, we may have set backs.  I will give us the time to reestablish any elements of the pyramid that may need to be redeveloped.   I will need to be aware of my body, especially how lightly I give aids and how he responds.  If his response is not immediate to a light aid, we need to go back to basics to reestablish “Yes.”  Beautiful movement must arise from subtlety.  I also need to be aware of his body and give him the preparation he needs to balance.  The dance flows from balance.  During the dance, I have noted where the difficulties arise.  When I am quiet and alone, I can reflect on the difficulties, deciding how to develop my body, my horse’s body, and our understanding to improve our fluency.

If you feel comfortable  sharing, please post your thoughts to the following exercise:  from P150 “Ask your dreamer, your realist, and your critic what you want from your riding.”  The chapter notes may assist you in developing your ideas.

This post was inspired by Wendy Jago’s book, Solo Schooling.  Here are the study notes for Part III, GROUNDWORK;  Chapter 9, “Getting What You Really Want.”

p145 Practicing these skills and strategies will have a “whole person spillover.”

p146 Steps:

  1. know what you really want
  2. think outside the box from the perspectives of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic
  3.   ensure goals are achievable
  4.   relate today’s schooling with tomorrow’s; chunk goals into achievable steps &

Improvise when today’s schooling takes an unexpected turn.  You own your riding- not your horse & no one else.

P147 Be wholehearted in your learning; embrace your frustration & disappointment, not just your success & enjoyment. (Learn from mistakes; be creative to solve them.  Turn the critic off!)

p149 Thinking Outside the Box:

  • Dreamer- first role; imagine, wonder, explore, PLAY with ideas
  • Realist- second role; develop strategy by asking: how, when, what
  • Critic- final role/LAST; only use to evaluate effectiveness of plan, don’t evaluate you or your horse

P150 Ask your dreamer, your realist, your critic what you want from your riding.

p151 Well-Formed Goals Test with these questions:

  1. Is it stated positively?
  2. Describe your goal using your 5 senses.
  3. Is it within your control?
  4. What exactly will be involved in achieving it?
  5.   What could you lose that is currently useful or important to you?
  6.   Can you afford what it will cost, in terms of money, time, & your of self?

p152 Keep on Track: Chunking

Make smaller steps that put you on track to achieving your goal- chunk down. 

Evaluate where you were then and now- chunk up.

Look at things from a different perspective- chunk laterally.

p155 Owning Your Riding

These processes produce clarity & confidence. Clarity simplifies communication, (with horse, family, trainer).

Body Work to Supple and Strengthen Your Influence In the Saddle; Strategies to Developing Straightness

Why You Should Ride the Left Side of Your Horse Going RightPosted by 

The article above provides very clear explanations to the hollow-stiff conundrum.  Strategies were coherent, common sense approaches to straightness.  Also consider suppling exercises: poll flexions/counterflexions and neck bending/counterbending (depending on the direction you are traveling) to elasticize the stiff side, fostering better balance in the horse’s body condition, as well as his way of traveling.

Horses, of course, are mirrors of their riders.  If we are stiff or if we sit crookedly, we will develop our horses’ bodies asymmetrically, resulting in stiffness, crookedness, and imbalance. Body work for riders is essential- when stretching, make sure you relax into the stretch and allow space to develop in your facia and your joints.  Never force a stretch.  Breathe and focus into the length and space you are creating.  Side planks are fabulous for developing a strong, supple core to aid you in sitting in harmony and straightness with your horse.  If your core is strong and balanced, you can influence a crooked horse to move more in balance, instead of abetting his asymmetry.  Practice simple balancing exercises, such as standing on one leg with your eyes closed.  Work up to 30 seconds.  Use a balance board for 10-20 minutes/per day.  The constant small shifts needed to keep the board level give your body feedback, which translate to the micro-adjustments a quiet, supple, balanced rider performs in the saddle.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Kiss

KissI couldn’t resist posting to the Weekly Photo Challenge when the challenge was “Kiss.” Just the right topic on this week of Valentine’s Day.

This photo expresses the inexplicable bond between horses and humans.  It is also a portrait of trust.   Humans are a predator species, known to exploit, abuse, and even eat horses.  Horses, on the other hand, are large creatures, easily outweighing me by ten-fold.  With his powerful jaws, Monarch could do serious damage to my face if he chose.  Good thing he’s offering a kiss.

Winds of Change

original watercolor (copyright Cheri Isgreen)

original watercolor                        (copyright Cheri Isgreen)

I have just returned from two weeks of beach walking and drawing in Mexico.  I’m planning a “side trip” in this blog to record my journey.  Until then, I wanted to share this motivational quote I received from a friend, “When life brings big winds of change that almost blow you over, close your eyes, hang on tight, and BELIEVE.”

It was so cold and wintery when I left.  This morning when I went out to feed, I felt a cool breeze on my face, but the sun was shining with promise of a warmer day.  The snow has mostly melted, and the ground is drying out.  Strong spring winds follow on the heels of winter, so this post presages the season.