Friday, May 30, 2014


Lately I've been having second thoughts about my relationship with Starbuck.  On the face of it, things seem pretty great - she neighs at me when I get to the stable, she comes when I call, she generally sticks her own head into the halter, she's much more affectionate (well, at least more tolerant of affection) than she was a year ago, she's obviously comfortable with my presence and she generally behaves quite well under saddle.  And I would say that 80% of the time, I'm really proud of what a well-adjusted mare I have.

Of the other 20%, part of that is just basic mare/fillyness like screeching or pinning her ears at other horses when they get in her personal space, which I'm honestly not too worried about - I kind of like her bitchy.  But there's also a residual rebellious streak where she'll just decide to try to do whatever she wants, then I say no, then she says "you're not the boss of me", then I say "wanna bet" and it escalates into a "who's the stubbornest of them all" battle.  For example on the ground when she wants to run around me in the other direction instead of calmly walking by something scary or when there's a yummy looking patch of grass she suddenly veers off towards.  Or while riding - she'll very deliberately cut a corner or go from a canter to a full out gallop interspersed with rodeo bucks or decide that she just doesn't feel like trotting.

But what really lurks in the corner of my mind, slowly eating away at my confidence is her spookiness - it's improved but is still definitely there.  Something I've read again and again about spooky horses is the idea that if they have a good enough leader, they generally trust this person not to put them in dangerous situations and thus don't tend to spook.  If this is the case, I obviously haven't gained Starbuck's unconditional trust yet.  And maybe I never will, and maybe like Marina claims, sometimes she spooks "for fun" or at least as a momentary distraction from the hard work of a lesson.  But I do think that reducing the amount of conflict between us and increasing her trust in me are two things definitely worth working toward.

I was trying to explain the conflict thing to my husband this morning giving the example of me trying to train her not to scratch her neck and chest against the tying post.  At first I just started punishing her ("ssht" noise, then a louder "ssht", then a "ssht" with a slap) every time she scratched herself, which worked OK as long as I was there, but as soon as I walked away she would start scratching herself again.  And of course it makes me the wicked witch of the West - always nagging and saying "no".  But then I thought, instead of telling her NOT to scratch herself, what if I gave her something else TO DO which prevented her from scratching?  So I've been reinforcing her early training of "stand still" and now when I tie her at the posts I back her up a few feet until she can't reach the actual post anymore, and tell her to "stand still".  If she moves forward, I simply back her up and ask her to stand still again, and if she stays where she is I praise her periodically with a "good girl" or by giving her sporadic cookies.  And it's working pretty well - I can now leave the tying post and as long as she knows (or thinks) I'm paying attention to her, she'll stay where I put her.  As soon as I start talking to someone she moves back and starts scratching again, but as far as I can tell this strategy is much more effective than constantly punishing her for something I can't blame her for in the first place (poor thing, being itchy sucks).

So I basically want more of this, which I think will improve our relationship, reduce my "pigheaded frustrated dominant hag" moments and perhaps eventually will even lead to her increasing her trust in me.  The trouble is that it's easier for me to be reactive than proactive and I'm not terribly creative about finding positive ways to structure her behavior, so I got an e-book yesterday called "The Power of Positive Horse Training: Saying "yes" to your horse" by Sarah Blanchard.  So far the theory seems pretty sound and there are a bunch of different exercises to discover the rewards you have to offer your horse (neither food nor clickers are featured which is a plus as far as I'm concerned) and to learn how and when to give them appropriately.  I already have plans to spend some quality time finding which spots she likes to be rubbed on can be reached from the saddle, to be able to give her a good reward while riding.  If I find something which works particularly well, I'll share it here.

By the way we're progressing well on the Spanish Walk front - for a couple of weeks she just picked up her feet but finally she figured out the "striking" motion and we're currently practicing this.  When I can get her to do the striking with just a voice command ("march"), we'll try to add some forward motion.  So one-two-march-march, or if that's too complicated, one-two-three-march.

Also lately I've been riding her with a running martingale so she can't throw her head up and avoid contact with the bit - Marina recommended using one for a few months and like everything else, we'll try it and see how it goes.  Try different things :-)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Dressage Lesson

My friend José, son of Gredos Ecuestre guru Gaby Mendez, is amazing at dressage.  Not only has he helped his father train horses for his trail riding business and fix clients' problem horses since he was a kid and given riding lessons at his dad's stable more recently, but he's also ridden and trained professionally at a couple of breeding operations in Spain, so even at the tender age of 23 he's got loads of experience.  And he's also a really nice guy and fun to be around, so when he told me he was coming to Mallorca to work at a very exclusive stud farm I was thrilled.  So yesterday I showed him around Palma, and in return he very generously gave me a dressage lesson after lunch (hopefully the first of many if I have any say about it).

Right off the bat, he told me to raise the snaffle as it was apparently hanging too low in her mouth to act effectively, and I had to put the noseband back on my bridle (I don't really care for nosebands and had taken it off) and tighten it way more than I had ever tightened it before.  I was worried that Starbuck would find this uncomfortable and fight it, but it didn't worry her at all - no nodding or head shaking or pulling, and right off the bat she started to have a little foam at the corners of her mouth and munched on the bit a little.  Then I mounted up and started riding and he started giving me some pointers which I'll list below in more detail.  But here's a quick summary: We started out taking up much more contact with the bit than I'm used to, and as a result I haven't worked so hard physically while riding for years - I think Starbuck thinks that bit=brakes and when she has more than just the barest contact she has to be pushed to keep going.  Also, any time I change anything about my posture, the rest of my body seems like it has to work overtime to keep from falling out of place.

To make a long story short, both Starbuck and I (and probably José as well!) worked much harder than we're used to yesterday, but got some really positive results - for example I figured that her accepting a steady contact and flexing at the poll correctly would take weeks if not months to achieve, but yesterday after only 20 minutes or so she was starting to get the picture and carry her head more vertically, even if only for a few moments.  And even though I had to constantly push her harder than I normally have to and he wouldn't let me use the whip as much as I wanted to, I could still feel at times that I had much more "horsepower" at my disposal than usual.  So here are the pointers I can remember as well as the exercises we worked on - it looks really basic but believe me, it was extremely exhausting!

Warming up - walk / trot

  • Spread hands to width of my body, elbows bent.
  • Exterior hand remains still and firm with fingers closed, interior hand slowly spreads towards the center of the arena / circle flexing the head and neck inward and then back again, straightening the head and neck. Elbows remain bent!
  • Repeat until the head and neck go down, then release (open fingers slightly) and add leg to maintain impulsion.  
  • Repeat every time the head comes back up.  Walk and trot with this "lengthening" pattern.
  • After several circles of her doing the exercise correctly, go large and release the reins so she can stretch down and forward, then change diagonal and repeat.

Normal work - walk / trot / canter

  • Hands together near the withers, elbows bent.  Hands still.
  • Fingers closed, leg on to maintain impulsion.
  • If she fights the contact, keep elbows bent and fingers closed and wait.
  • If she leans on the contact, give her more leg to move her forward until she lightens, then release (open fingers slightly).
  • If she looks at something outside the arena, flex her head to the center by opening my inside rein as in the warm-up and then straighten her back up.
  • Build up impulsion but don't allow her to advance before transition, then ask for transition with steady building leg pressure (not kicks) while maintaining contact.  Maintaining contact is key for a good balanced transition.
  • I can use the whip lightly to increase / maintain impulsion, but always using the leg first.
  • After several circles of her doing the exercise correctly, go large and release the reins so she can stretch down and forward, then change diagonal and repeat.
  • End with forward trot on a long rein (but still with contact) several times around the arena.

Overall pointers:

  • Never cross hands over the withers - one hand on each side of the withers
  • Keep my elbows bent
  • Keep my hands closed except for release
  • Maintain steady but flexible contact at all times, even with long reins
  • Sit up straighter (3 point seat)
  • Legs behind the girth so I don't have to kick and can simply squeeze
  • Steady leg pressure instead of kicks
  • More leg than whip and always leg before whip
  • Use whip more lightly, only enough to get a little more energy, not enough to startle

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Things have been going really well with Starbuck for the past few weeks.  We've still got a little bit of work to do on stopping when I want to, but this is generally only an issue once in a long while when she's gotten excited after jumping or a spook.  And we're still struggling with tracking up, but I honestly think that it's something which can't be forced and that if we work towards that goal bit by bit and I'm careful to ride her responsibly, we'll eventually get there.  But she's much more consistent than she was even six months ago - I don't have to push her as hard to keep her going when she's feeling lazy, or work quite so hard to slow her down when she's in a tizzy.  And aside from a few highly controllable spooks, we've been able to join in all the lessons with the best of 'em and above all for a couple of weeks I've been really enjoying every single ride with her which sounds pretty basic but by no means is the norm for us - generally she makes me work pretty hard and fear for my life once or twice in return for a truly enjoyable session.

Here's a nice jump we made last week, I'm so glad this one was the one caught on camera because most of the others weren't nearly so pretty - heels up, weight too far forward, crooked arrivals and departures, Starbuck scattering all the practice rail/pad thingys Marina uses for these exercises all over the arena - you get the picture.  But as you can see we ended up doing it more or less well and ended with me being thoroughly satisfied with my little filly.

In other news, my friend Ivón saw a photo from last week's "Parelli session" on Facebook and commented "Whoa, Parelli already?! At this rate you'll be doing Spanish Walk next month!".  So I've accepted her challenge and yesterday started teaching Starbuck Spanish Walk.  My method is based on (well, pretty much copied from) this one and what I'm more or less planning is this:

  1. With me standing on the ground beside her, teach Starbuck to lift her leg when it's tapped once with the crop (we did this yesterday).  1 week (5-10 minutes a day) of training working up to her lifting her leg when the crop is twirled in the air instead of her leg being tapped.
  2. Teach Starbuck to extend her leg forward when she lifts it.  1 week of drills when warming up / cooling down.
  3. Teach Starbuck to do this alternately with both legs - left, right, left, right.  1 week of drills.
  4. Teach Starbuck to move forward with each lift-and-extend.  1 week of drills.
  5. Teach Starbuck to do all this from the saddle - depending on how good a job I've done up until then this will be harder or easier.  Hopefully I'll be able to cue with the crop-twirl and away she'll go walking Spanish, but I have a feeling it won't be that simple.

So far, she finds this lifting her leg thing very boring, but I bet that'll change when I start factoring in treats next week.  It took us about 15-20 minutes to get to the point where she'd lift either leg consistently with one tap from the crop, and she still takes a few seconds to do it, but I decided it'd be best to quit while I was ahead and keep working on it a little bit every day.  This kind of ground training is the type of thing we did a lot when I first got her (standing tied, walking forward to a cue from a rope around her leg, head down cue, etc...) and I think it was good for my patience, her focus and our overall relationship, so I'm excited to get back to this kind of thing.  After Spanish Walk I want to teach her to lie down on cue, I think that'd be really neat too.

It's been a long journey to get to this point, but what I love most about having a young horse is that there's so many different things I want to do and this way we'll hopefully get to do all of them together.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Yesterday my barn next-door-neighbor Amanda and I ended up at the stable at the same time when no one else happened to be riding, so we decided to block off the non-scary half of the arena and to work on our new-found one rein Parelli skills.  And since Amanda's sister (also named Sara) was there, she was kind enough to take loads of photos and videos :D

What follows is pretty embarrassing as far as posture, seat and control of my horse goes - it's funny how when riding as soon as you have to start focussing on something new or different, everything you thought you had under control goes right out the window.  And for the first 15 minutes or so just getting Starbuck not to stop to eat the grass growing around the edges of the arena was a losing battle.  But we eventually got on the same page, especially after I remembered to look where I was going rather than at her, and before we knew it we were doing serpentines and figure eights and even a few mostly straight lines!  We ended with the thrill of a better connection and some nice cantering which was only punctuated once by a few bucks which I was able to stop short with a one-rein stop (yay me!).

It's not lost on me that when I'm riding her like this, we're effectively practicing her being able to say "No" whenever she wants to, and so I've got to be careful not to do it too often.  But I do feel like when she finally says "Yes" it means much more than when I'm riding her with a hackamore or a bit, and I know it will eventually do wonders for my riding position (the center of gravity is much farther back), leg and seat aids and for my dependence on the reins for balance, so until I see any nasty consequences I'm looking forward to riding her like this once every week or two.  In the meanwhile, enjoy the photos and video - at the very least they'll be great for "before and after" comparisons ;-P

Friday, May 2, 2014

When she was good...

Starbuck is a creature of extremes.  Remember the Longfellow poem about the little girl with the little curl?  Well Starbuck's about like that - when she's good she's just so damn good!  Here are some of the things we've been busy doing for the past couple of weeks instead of writing blog posts ;-)

  • Using a neck rope / balance rein in combination with the regular reins for steering and stopping cues as well as trying to improve Starbuck's balance
  • Riding (walk, trot and canter including figures of 8, backing up and turns on the haunches) in the round pen with only the neck rope and nothing at all on her head

  • "No hands" downwards transitions and ever-sharper upwards transitions, even to a canter
  • "Parelli class" using only a rope halter and one rein attached to the halter to steer relying on seat cues to stop

  • "Parelli class" using no reins and only a carrot stick to steer relying on seat cues to stop

  • Some lovely jumps entering with rhythm and impulsion and leaving at a nice steady canter without bucking
  • No longer using the butterfly bit at all and back to using the hackamore 75% of the time with the snaffle only when it's windy or there's a lot of spooky stuff going on
  • Actually tracking up!!!

I've been really having a blast lately, especially since Starbuck's performance is on a higher level than some of the newer horses and I can feel like instead of struggling to keep up with a mid-level class, we're actually up there with the leaders most of the time.  And of course riding bitless and bridleless is another huge thrill for me - I feel like the connection I have with Starbuck is much more honest and puts us on a more even playing field, which when she's amenable to my plans is wonderful.  When I ride with less tack I feel pretty confident that #1 I'm doing a pretty creditable job on her training and #2 she's really doing this because she wants to.

However Starbuck is, after all, a teenager and so like Longfellow's little girl, sometimes she's downright horrid.  At the start of the Parelli lesson she realized she had the freedom to put her head down and eat the grass growing at the edge of the arena, or bite other horses on the butt whenever she felt like it and it took me a good 10 - 15 minutes to get her to agree to what I wanted to do (ride around calmly in logical patterns without stopping for snacks, maiming or even threatening the other horses and their riders).  And last Monday I was working on activating her hindquarters and tracking up when a gust of wind blew over a jump standard which made a loud noise as it hit the ground, sending Starbuck off on her best rodeo bronc imitation to date.  I lost my stirrups but rode out the first three or four bucks pretty well, tried to turn her in a circle, lost my balance, got bucked into the air, landed hard with my pelvic bone on the pommel and with the next buck landed on the ground.  Boy was I pissed off that after such a major spook, when I got up I found her five feet away calmly munching on thistle flowers and looking at me like "Who, me?" - I know it's a blessing that she's able to instantly chill out after completely freaking out but just at that moment I wasn't amused.  Maybe it had something to do with all the arena sand in my panties.

Anyhow no harm, no foul - I got right back on sand and all and finished what I had planned to do for the day, and in the end I guess I got what I wanted - her hindquarters certainly had to be engaged to accomplish all that bucking.