Women & Horses Women & Horses (tm)  by Mary D. Midkiff

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Turning Bad Days into Good Ones

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The Women & Horses Newsletter - June/July 2006

I want to share some insights with you on how to turn what starts out to be a bad day with your horse into a good day.

All of us have those days when we just don't feel it, whatever it might be. We'd rather just hang out at home and read a book or lounge around. Horses have those days too when they feel they would rather hang out with their buddies or munch hay in the stall rather than play a game, much less work out, with you.

I recently had one of those days with my horse, Redge. It wasn't his first and I'm sure it won't be his last; it made me reflect on how we all need to know how to handle these days when they happen. He was fine and happy as usual to see and be with me while I prepared him for our ride, but once we started heading out he dragged his feet a bit slowly and just wasn't very eager to get going. It was a hot morning and I knew the temperature was playing a role in both our energy levels. I did my usual warm-up ground work with him, and he obliged by going through the motions and giving it a try. I rewarded him with lots of pats and strokes of the mane before I took him over to a trailer and mounted off the wheel well. I do this quite often as practice for teaching him to stand quietly and wait for me to mount from the trailer when we are away from home. It has served us well many times over.

Once I mounted him and we headed away from the barn his stride picked up a bit but his heart wasn't in it. We got to the road leading out of the parking lot and he tried to turn around and head back to the barn. It wasn't a nasty or dirty turn – it was just one of those "I really would rather go back now" statements of preference. This was the first indication to me that this was going to be one of those days when he just didn't want to go to school.

Farther down the trail he tried another turn-around but I intercepted it with some physical and verbal encouragement and he carried on, if somewhat reluctantly. Once we got into trotting he seemed a bit more interested until we came to a turn in the fencing and he got a whiff of what I later determined to be a dead prairie dog. His neck swelled up, he snorted, put on the brakes and did a 180. I stopped him and talked to him again about being brave and trusting me and worked with vibration in my legs (not kicking), keeping my knees open and talking him through the unpleasant smell.

He went forward through the turn and past the prairie dog with tension throughout his body, but he did it and I was so proud of him that I enthusiastically rewarded him. He relaxed and we continued trotting our way around the track toward the arena. Once we arrived he waited for me to open the gate and walked through, but I could tell he was hoping we wouldn't continue to the arena today.

I knew I was going to have to be really creative to make this day worthwhile for both of us. It wasn't going to be about achieving anything significant, but rather forwarding our partnership and learning something simple that he could take away and be proud of.

Once I had him turned back to the gate, he waited for me to swing it closed and we carried on. He continued to feel a bit tense to me even though he was stretching his neck down and walking. He was anticipating something he wasn't looking forward to. Sure, I could have insisted on doing dressage movements, "making him behave" and go on the bit, and "pushing him through" whatever his mood was that day in order to "teach" him he had to obey me regardless of mood or motivation.

But what would that achieve? I learned many years ago, thankfully, that horses build up resentment and resistance to trainers who take this approach. They brace their bodies against the rider and against contact. Their backs becomes tense, risking injury to neck and poll over time, and their attitude sours. This manner of training simply short circuits the nervous system. They don't want to play the game with the humans anymore and become difficult, "bad actors", "problem horses" and, worst of all, potential "throwaways."

Redge had that kind of training through his younger years and, as a result, was an emotionally damaged horse when I got him at six years of age. It was no wonder that by the time we met he had decided he didn't really want to play with humans anymore.

If your horse is having a bad day, it is up to you to shift to meet that mood and help him see that the game can always be fun or interesting, and that he can feel good about himself afterwards. Good days are easy; bad days are challenging but potentially more rewarding. It's up to us to be resourceful and make every day work on some level, even if it means seeking just 15 minutes of quality time rather than an hour of struggle and force.

On this particular day I knew I had to do something to bring Redge into the game and have him play with me. As it was a hot day and there were no other horses out working, we were alone and Redge understandably wanted nothing more than to be back in the barn. I decided it would be a session solely dedicated to the connection between us, to borrow a concept from my favorite instructor Peggy Cummings. (If you haven't done so already, go to the website www.peggycummings.com and look into an incredible life's work under the name of Connected Riding®. I have been working with Peggy since 1991 and her work is truly empowering and a breakthrough in the horse industry.)

For the next 20 minutes, Redge and I practice connection, rotation and stretching at the walk in both directions, fully using the arena. I slide up on the reins and make a connection with the mouth, rotate my upper body, open my knees and vibrate the legs to start the rear engines, then slowly release the rein pressure, rotate my upper body again and allow the full stretch of his neck. I repeat this process until he is fully with me and connecting. I then add some bending and some lateral work to this routine. I talk to him about it as if I were explaining it to a friend. He seems to understand and comprehend when I put the message out with my body as well as through my body.

At the end of the 20 minutes I seem to have a fully connected, happy and appreciative partner. It is always amazing to me because at the beginning I think, "I can't overcome this mood," but I know I have to try and remember that it has worked every time.

Next, I initiate a few minutes of trot work with a soft rein, quiet rhythm, again connecting and releasing and rotating my upper body and incorporating a little bending and bit of lateral work here and there. When he gets nervous or fussy in any way, we go back to the walk work. After the trot work, we go back to the walk work and finish with stretching. He seems really happy about what he has done.

It was 45 minutes of mental health work, which translated into a relaxed and released body with no tension. He did "work" both physically and mentally, but it was in a positive and restorative way.

Now, as we head back to the barn, he is settled and stable within himself. The game was hardly what he anticipated and originally wanted nothing to do with. His nervous system is functioning within a healthy zone which feeds the rest of his body and mind. What a satisfying feeling it is for both of us to get this result, especially when the day at first looked like a lost cause, or a fight at best.

Here are some things you can do when your horse starts out by telling you it's not a good day for him.

  1. Ground work is just as beneficial to the horse as under saddle. There are a great many Connected Riding® Ground Techniques, and Linda Tellington Jones has a wonderful series of ground work. Play with your horse in the round pen; take him out for a long walk giving him a few challenging questions along the way; set up a grid of trotting poles and have them figure out some puzzles; long line him (ground driving) asking for circles around you and other objects along the way.
  2. Under saddle, give him some additional mental work rather than just hard physical work. Walk in and out of obstacles, practice turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, leg yield, rein back, connecting-to-stretching rewarding him warmly after each task. Stroke the withers and the mane line in front the saddle, bringing the blood pressure down and giving the good feeling of mutual grooming.
  3. When and if you do decide to do any exercise work, make it about the mental health aspect, not about just moving the legs. Trot a few strides, then slide up on the reins and release your lower back and bring him to a halt. Slow release on the reins to a walk then back up to the trot. Keep doing this until you don't have to slide up on the reins but just barely indicate that movement and they come to a halt. This is a very useful exercise both mentally and physically.
  4. You can practice the same exercise at the canter. Make sure you reward your partner between each and every exercise and speak positively during the exercise.
  5. Trail rides are always a good alternative. Getting horses out of the arenas as often as possible is very important to their mental health.
  6. Make sure your horse is getting plenty of turnout daily, and the proper amount of hay and grain for the exercise he is performing.

Our horses deserve to have their "bad" days turn into a positive experience. You are the only one who can make that happen for them. It's up to you to be a resourceful, creative, open-minded "change agent."

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How many times have you gone to ride your horse when you are under pressure? Probably fairly often. You only have one hour to get everything done, so you groom and tack up quickly, drag your horse to the arena, get on and start grinding away with a single-minded focus on you want from the horse. When he won't give you what you want, you become increasingly tense and insistent. The situation escalates into a bad day for both of you. The horse tenses and checks out mentally, your messages become more unclear to him, you tighten further and the whole purpose of the session is lost. You end up causing a problem rather than just squeezing in a ride when you didn't have much time. You've created a situation where the horse may not be 100% sure about you the next time you ride.

A better way to handle a time-pressured day is to cut back to basics - some simple ground work for 30 minutes or so - making it more constructive and relaxing for both of you. You will be amazed at how much more learning (in less time!) your horse can take in when his human partner is present, participating and positive. Your horse will look forward to each and every day you are with him – the long ones and the short ones.

Happy Riding!


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Mary Midkiff, 1119 Merrick Drive #362a, Lexington KY 40502
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