Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Being Good Willing

Ok, I'll admit it, I'm a real thinker....in case you haven't noticed this already. I think a lot about my garden, my animals, my farm, my students, what I read, what I write, what to buy at the grocery store, how much gas it might take to get from point "A" to point "B", whether or not it will rain, how much it will rain, whether to school dressage or jump, whether to jump gymnastics or mini-courses, whether to use the figure-8 noseband or the flash, whether to wear the black helmet cover or the purple, etc., etc. You get the picture. And, yes, I even wear myself out from thinking all the time, too, so you're not alone in feeling tired already. And this is only a fraction of what runs through my mind at all times.

Among the things I ponder on a daily basis is EDDIE. Yep, you've probably figured this out by now, too. I love Eddie. I adore Eddie. And, I like to think that Eddie loves and adores me, too. Sometimes I believe it; though, at other times, it is clear he just wants to stand in the barn or mill around snacking on hay. One thing that I do a lot is "try to figure out what Eddie is thinking." It's like a game....almost. It's entertaining......almost. It's a challenge and a worthy puzzle.....until I guess wrong and I think he's "ok" with jumping the stone wall into the field full of cows, when in reality, Eddie is thinking "Hell-to-the-NO." And, this leads me to what my blog entry is all about today. How do I get to the heart of what goes on in the mind of Good Willing? 

Eddie is a smart horse. He is smart, observant, clever, and he thinks as much on his own as I do for the both of us. We are a good match in the intellectual department. If I could sit down with him and have a regular conversation, things would be much more enjoyable, sane, and productive. But, as all riders know, we have to find ways to understand our horses and communicate with them in any number of ways other than verbal, most of the time. One of the things that also complicates issues with Eddie is that even when he knows exactly what I want him to do, he will devise a million subtle ways to avoid doing specifically what I want him to. This causes the greatest frustration for me in dressage, since I can ask for a simple bend at the trot to the left and with one or two basic aids, I convey this message to Eddie. I know that Eddie receives this message, but instead of softening his jaw, bending at the poll, and stepping through quietly to the left, he will do this: stiffen outside shoulder and lean on inside rein while bracing against the bit and simultaneously cranking his back into a knot and shortening his stride which makes my hands go up, my hips lock, and my teeth clamp down in anger. It reminds me exactly of something that the very funny and very talented Leslie Wylie wrote in her blog recently, when quoting Jim Koford speaking of her horse: "He's a little tight through his hips and you're starting to ask him for more collection, so he's devised an intricate system of evasions...." An "intricate system of evasions," indeed. Now, Eddie's disobedience can hardly be called extreme (like I said, he's "subtle" in his aversion to my polite requests). But, the lack of overt disobedience is what makes it so infuriating and so difficult to discipline. This, then, leads me to try and figure out how to convince Eddie that what I want him to do is a good idea. I need to reason with him. It's not about ignorance, evil/dangerous behavior, or just blatant refusal to work. He is, in a sense, listening to me.....just in his own way. So, how do I see eye-to-eye with a horse that is as smart as (or even smarter than) me?

One thing I've learned is to get a quick sense of what he's enjoying about our lesson/school and encourage that. I don't ever get on my horse's back and think, "Well, today we are going to accomplish _______, come hell-or-high water." Eddie loves to warm-up on a long rein, with his big, white Quarter Horse nose on the ground, stepping up underneath, and stretching through his back. When I start to warm-up (for ANYTHING, no matter the day or the phase), I let him walk, trot, and canter both directions with little contact and lots of long rein. I can do this because he's a quiet and even fellow, so I don't run the risk of having a wild, uncontrollable beast careening around the arena, even at the worst of times. To Eddie, this is important because we get the engines running without me starting out by giving him rules, rules, rules from the moment my butt hits the saddle. He needs to feel like he's included in the discussion, and he'll usually be pretty agreeable if he feels as though what we're doing is "his idea." When I start him over a few fences for a jumping session, I've learned to begin with a long rein (again) over a few crossrails and just use my legs and upper body to slow him and turn him. Once he's jumping from a good spot and I'm not all up in his face with my hands, he'll canter around quietly and evenly and jump anything I ask. 

These simple solutions have taken almost 6 years and any number of "ups and downs" to figure out. But, I've got it figured out, at least in these basic instances. I've taken the time to think about what I'm doing, how I'm asking, how Eddie responds, and why. Yes, it is a lot of thinking (or OVERTHINKING, some may feel), but I have the luxury of riding one horse -- and one horse only -- so he is my singular point of focus. And, because I've taken the time to find tiny ways to involve him in our sessions every single time, then he is much more agreeable to whatever it is we're working on. I want him to learn and understand and to have fun. I love my horse and I want this to be a democracy, not a dictatorship (although, sometimes, it can be a bit of a monarchy). I've always said, "Eddie needs to only learn something new one time." Once he's got it, he's got it. He needs to figure things out and break it down into his own terms, and I need to let him. He is definitely not a horse that just blissfully listens to me without question. But, I'd rather have a thinker over just a "doer" any day. It makes me work smarter, it makes me think harder, and it makes our sessions so much more rewarding when we both "get it." And, then, there are the times when I get on, hack down the lane in my back pasture, then let him go and we just gallop. No lessons, no learning, no skill-building....just a horse and his rider letting out all their anxieties and having a good time!

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