copyright- Teresa Alexander-Arab

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Spookology: noun, humourous: related to the study of a sub-set of behaviors of the horse (equs ferus caballus), triggered by the presence of, or perception of, a real or imagined threat. 

The other day Cynthia and I were riding. Carmen was quite tense and required a lot of work to settle. Once, when Cynthia and I passed I could hear her muttering that Irish was sleepwalking.
Wanto to trade? I called out facetiously.
Well I would but I dont' know your cues with her!

That got me thinking- I have learned a number of responses to her spookiness that I am now doing wihtout really thinking about it. I thought it would be a good idea to record them in case I needed to refer to them at a different time. It's was also kind of fun to write them out- sort of like a trouble shooting manual.
Issue: Horse is generally tense and looking around. Attention is not on a rider and she seems annoyed that I keep interrupting with silly demands like whoa, go, turn, etc.

Solution: A)  Get horse moving forward. I cannot access her brain until I access her hind end. It seems counter-intuitive but I have found that the slower the gait the greater and more dramatic the spook. I've been teleported 10 feet at a walk but at the canter we've only ever scooted a couple feet. Lots of directed movement- circles, changes of reins and transitions will get her back on me.

B) Also, do not clamp on inside rein- give room for horse to move forward and not give her something to 'fight'. Outside rein can control the pace and inside rein is forward so horse doesn't feel trapped. You can raise it up a bit and place it on the inside of the neck as a barrier.

In fact it's more critical then ever to ride to the best of your abilty. It's easy to get tense and harsh in reaction but breathe, lighten your seat and project a calm aura (that the horse will see through but will still appreciate the effort).
Issue: Backing off the pace when approaching a specific area of the ring.

Soultion: A) bring horse (or let horse come)  in off the rail and leg yield towards the trouble spot. Sending the horse directly at the area can lead to an unwanted confrontation. The leg yield (or side pass) helps the horse to appraoch more indirectly. Praise and/or pat when horse is at the spot so that they know they did the right thing.

B) use these areas for resting so horse feels positive about them.


Issue: Horse slams to a halt and refuses to go forward.

Potential Solutions: I say potential becasue it's going to depend very much on the context. First, check out what's freaking them out to see if it's valid. From there determine what is best but here are some options:
A) gradually work the horse closer to the area in a series of 10 m spirals
B) give them a boot and tell them to get on with it (really only if you know they know this thing and you're not worried that the horse will rear).
c) turn and back them towards what is spooky.

Issue: Horse leaps away (either forward or sideways) and bolts.

Solution: A) halt them as quickly as you can (installing a whoa is priceless) and back them up. Halt, count to 5 and then carry on.

B) Fix the shoulder- even better if you anticipate that this may happen stop it before hand- Carmen's 'tell' is that she drops her inside shoulder when she's thinking that a quick escape might be necessary. I ride with a crop to tap that shoulder when it drops- that makes it harder to do the sudden drop-spin-bolt that she's so good at.

C) ride shoulder in with head/body tilted away from the spooky thing. Works the mind and keep the body in a position that makes the bolting much harder. Note that it may not be a pretty shoulder-in but at that point you can't be fussy.

Issue: horse scoots away from something.

Solution: if it's a small scoot ignore and carry on. You may want to circle back. If they horse goes into a faster gait- go with it and make them work at that gait. That takes a lot of fun out of it and helps you to connect their brain to their body (see above).  If it's a big scoot, halt and back them up. Repeat a couple times and carry on.

Issue: Horse flinches but otherwise carries on.

Solution: Praise horse and carry on. After all this is what you've been working for all along.

General Tips and Tricks that I've learned:
  • Focus on the work, not the issue. There doesn't need to be two beings looking for danger at every stride. 
  • Don't feed the drama llama. Carmen can a little full of herself and needs to be settled. Or, as I like to think of it, there only needs to be one hysterical mare in the ring. 

  • Breathe. And ride. Just ride. Sit up, be clear with your cues and if you need to be a bit harsh to cut through the noise, then do it but always go back to light. 
  • I know how the ride will be from her behaviour in the barn and up to the ring. I am firm expecting  manners and will spend the time on the ground. 
  • know how incredibly awesome she can be work and help her bring that out of herself. In spite of herself. 
  • Celebrate the progress we've made . 
some days it just feels so good

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Horse Husband

I saw this photo on FB and thought that it would make the best Christmas present for Ed:
see- it's perfect for my female horse friends. You're welcome :)
Ed has been the most supportive of husbands of my horse passion hobby but he really came into his own when we moved to our farm. He repairs, mows, paints, feeds, mucks out and listens when I recount the details of my latest ride.

He enjoys the horses and interacting with them.
Ed: I've taught the horses a trick
Me: Oh?
Ed: Yes. When I'm in the garden they have learned to come to the fence and get a carrot. Yesterday they came three times! 
Me: mmm. that is good training! (note that I didn't say who was training whom. I get points for that right?)
as long as they are all happy I guess it doesn't matter

Ed also is a great person to sack out your horse. But you have to understand that he doesn't really know that he's doing it so you have to be ready. Ed is very task focussed- when he's on a task he doesn't always stop to think that it might be spooky to the horses.

Here's a story to help illustrate my point.

Carmen has been in heat for the past few days. She's not at a point in her training where I can truly tell that there is a difference in her when she's in heat- she's more easily distracted and reactive. Which means that I have to be on my game. The last two rides have been good but she's needed to be managed in the warm up so that she can focus on the work at hand and not spiral.

This morning I got her ready to ride. My plan was to work on transitions and having them back to front. She has a great little booty and needs to learn how to use it. I also wanted to work on straightness. As I headed out of the barn I could hear an ATV up by the ring. People have been out on their ATVs and I figured that people were riding on the next property. But when I came up the hill I could see that it was our ATV. Ed had it up there and was painting the boards in the ring. He was letting it run to recharge the battery.

I figured that this was good- I could work on her getting used to more distractions. I just asked him to move it out of the ring and carry on. He said that he was almost done and was just finishing up. I got on Carmen and she immediately noted the following:
1. the old horse blanket that was over the rail was now draped over the upside down wheelbarrow. Carmen does not trust the wheelbarrow so with the blanket it was doubly dubious.
2. there was a small metal container in the ring and was likely a bomb or some such thing (it was the paint can)
3. some weeds by the ring were now in bloom.

All of this would have made riding impossible before. But now it just made it more tight. I ensured that my aids were clear and worked on keeping her mind busy. Keeping her mind busy requires many changes of directions and asks so that she doesn't have a chance to worry about other things.  I let her come over to see what Ed was up to. She stood there like a trained horse. I then noticed that he was standing on the circle of death  hula hoop that is filled with sand. He was standing on it so that it was upright. I've done a lot of work with Carmen with this but I didn't want a blow up.
Ed, can you be careful that you don't accidentally rattle that hula hoop? 
Huh, what? 
As he asked this he moved his foot and the hula hoop fell, rattling loudly, to the ground.
Carmen spooked in place- all four feet rattled but she didn't move her position. What the heck is he doing now?! 
I had to laugh and I gave her a big pat for being so awesome. After that I decided that neither one of us had to worry about Ed or other things. We went to work and Ed finished up and left.

Ed says that he has no interest in riding. But I wonder if I just found the right horse.......
from our trip to Arizona this April

Friday, August 19, 2016

Turn That Frown Upside Down

The weather is not as humid so it's much more comfortable to ride.  In the afternoon I sent a text to Cynthia enticing her to come ride.  She was part of the distance to my house but didn't have her riding clothes. But I reminded her that she has left breeches at my house just for emergencies like this. 

A few more persuasive texts later and she and her husband were coming for supper. The guys were making some modifications to my trailer dressing room while we rode. After we are they shooed us out to ride while they cleaned (major husband points were being earned).   In the barn both horses were half asleep. Irish was chilled enough but Carmen gave me her 'less than  impressed ' look that only a mare can pull off.

You can't be serious?
It's a lovely day. It will be fun. 
I'm not in the mood for work. 
I'm not planning on it being hard but I guess that will be up to you. 

She was quiet getting ready but not too happy.  When she was a bit cinchy I was wondering if she was in heat.   I decided to spend some time doing groundwork before I got on. It didn't take long and she was with me. When I got on she felt a bit sluggish. I spent some time trying to get her loose and making sure that I was keeping my riding form. It became apparent that I needed to work on straightness. Carmen has a tendency to throw her haunches in- most often when traveling to the right.  I really really really want to correct it by pulling on the inside rein but that doesn't work. If I just use the outside rein she falls in so I have to use inside leg to outside rein. The other issue (related) is that she's a bit hollow on her left side and I tend to sit more left. It takes concentration to stay even in my hips and I'm not always sure if I am or just think I am. All these thoughts are probably why Cynthia posted this to my FB page:

By Sara Lee Equine Artist
What I've been trying to do is keep my focus on my plan and not let her distractions derail me.  And this really works- she comes back to me rather then me chasing her attention.  I even managed to work further into the area at C with no issues- other then her going hey this is the REST AREA.

After she yawned and yawned in the barn. She looked sleepy and happier.  She also confirmed that she's in heat.

What was excellent was that it took very little to get her working with me. She didn't stay grumpy.  While she started sluggis, I didn't have this huge battle to get her forward. The balking seems to be a thing of the past. Spooking occurs but it's not  life threatening or frightening. I've been trying to keep this idea in my brain:

Emily Cole illustrations/

I guess what I'm saying is that she's more rideable. Which means that my accounts might be a lot more boring.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Monday was a much better day weather wise so I decided to ride after supper. I talked Cynthia into coming out as well (not that she took much convincing).

In the barn the horses gazed at us sleepily. Obviously they had different plans then we did for the evening. When I brought Carmen out she was relaxed and stood there quietly. She gave a big sigh when I put the saddle on.

When I mounted she walked off before I asked and tried to go through the reins when I asked her to stop. I backed her up and made her stand where I started. A few episodes of this and she stood still with her ears on me. After that I asked her to walk off and we started schooling.

To be honest I was not riding my best. I felt like a sack of hammers. But I kept trying. It occurred to me that I might be riding the way that I always do - but now I'm aware of how much I suck. Either way I just kept reminding myself to put my pelvis, arms, legs where they were supposed to be. In spite of my less then optimal riding she stuck with me. There were times when she tried to distract me with dangers but I kept to my plan and ignored these gambits. After a while she didn't even try- instead she stayed on with what I was asking her to do. Before she would have blown me off and thrown her fits. Every time she tensed I relaxed and gave her the inside rein. This gave her a place to go and so there was no point in running away.

We worked for about 15 minutes at walk and trot when I brought her up to C to rest. She was resting when she spied an area that the deer had flattened down the night before. She gave a big start and stopped. She then did it again- splayed her feet, snorted and opened her eyes wide at it. I didn't do anything but sit relaxed. Suddenly she gathered herself together and MARCHED up to the area. I didn't even try to stop her to shorten the rein. I let her be brave. She came up beside it, sniffed and then relaxed. I was thrilled- instead of running in fear or me helping her to approach the area , she was brave and I was simply her back-up.

We went back to work and she was with me. I kept the work simple- figure 8s, serpentines and easy transitions. I don't know how long we were riding but I was feeling like we were working together. She asked me if she could stretch out when we were trotting. I haven't really allowed her a long rein because that has led to problems. But I decided to see. I put us on the centre circle and established our trot rhythm. I then asked her to take the rein down and stretch out. In the past when I tried the trot stretchy circle we would lose our shape, rhythm and she would either root or invert. This time she would follow the rein and not root. She didn't stay stretched out evenly, she would pop off the bit and I would just gather her up and ask again. Slowly we had moments of true stretchy circle. While our contact was not consistent our rhythm and shape were. She never faltered or used the long rein to run out of the circle. I was thrilled. After a few minutes I asked her to walk and then we rested.

Cynthia joined me and she dropped the gate. I walked Carmen out first and, instead of turning towards the barn, the turned towards the path we take around the field. She didn't even want to wait for Irish. We walked around and she was strode out like a brave pony. She was curious about things but didn't waver. At the end she came to a halt beside the garden.
This is where we stop and I get my carrot. 
Yup, I created this monster- I taught her to go to the garden and rewarded her by picking a carrot for her.
What are you going to do when the carrots are gone? Cynthia asked.
I will probably have to 'plant' some out here I laughed. It seems a small price to pay.

While from a training perspective this ride was not stellar but there was a lot to celebrate:

  • Carmen and I stayed on the same page instead of on two different books
  • There was no drama (yay for drama free rides)
  • She is starting to show bravery (like a real Andalusian)
  • I am riding with confidence and no longer feel like I have to gird my loins to ride.
  • Carmen is generally happier- she's been getting happier around the barn but not she's happier in the ring too. The ring is not the negative space for her that it was.
  • she stayed soft on the bit

I hesitate to say this but I think that Carmen and I may actually be connecting. Heaven knows I've been working at it so I shouldn't be surprised but I am weird like that.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sticking to the Plan

Horse camp is over. I took my niece to the airport Friday night. I really enjoyed having someone to share my knowledge of horses. We both declared the camp a success and decided that next year Caelen would come for a month.
Irish enjoyed Horse Camp too. 
Cynthia came out on Saturday morning to ride. I was hoping that Carmen and I would be able to carry on with our work. I have to be honest and share that I worry that we might backslide. Logically I know that we can have some bad rides but not go to back to the total breakdown in trust and communication that we had before. But logic is sometimes overruled by worry.

I gave myself a pep talk and reviewed what I had to keep in mind:

  • stay calm and focussed on task- do not buy into her drama
  • ride correctly from the beginning- make sure that my position is correct (well as correct as I can anyway) and my aids are clear
And guess what? It worked. I didn't focus on getting her to ride into the spooky areas- I focussed on riding the gait/pattern I had in mind. It didn't take long before she was tuning into me and not the potential dangers. I also had to stop her from swerving up towards C (our new rest stop). That felt so good to have this as a new issue. I even started to chip away at the 'rest zone' with work. I"m hoping that soon we won't be doing that at all. 

I wanted to work on getting her to lengthen stride but it was not a huge success. I needed to go back to walk-trot transitions with them coming from behind. Once I had that I took her across the diagonal and felt her actually stretch out into a slightly longer stride. I stopped and let her rest with lots of pats. 

Irish and Cynthia were rocking it as well. We were both done and then we went out around the field. I kept a short but following rein but she was completely relaxed and enjoyed the walk. 

Saturday night Ed and I went out to celebrate 29 years of marriage. It was a delicious dinner on the Lunenburg waterfront. this morning we awoke to the sound of rain. It was a great sound- we've not had any real rain for weeks. I was hoping for a rainy day but it stopped around noon. I went out to drag the ring thinking I would ride but it was so hot and humid it felt like a sauna. I was sweating just driving the tractor. The  horses were smart and hid in the barn all afternoon. I've been riding pretty consistently this summer- sometimes twice a day so I gave myself permission to take today off.  Carmen and I have had some intense rides this summer and now I believe it's time for her to learn that it can be fun, not a battle. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Secret to Happiness

You know when someone says something that makes you stop and think? Well I had that experience yesterday. Of course you know my tendency to overthink things and sometimes I have too many thoughts. Usually those are not the right thoughts.

But I digress.

It all started with a photo that Caelen took from my lesson the other day. I really liked it so posted it to FB.
Sue Leffler (the one who did the Centred Riding clinic a couple weeks ago) say it and commented:

Sue Leffler She's really starting to look happy in her work!
Teresa Alexander-Arab yes, I'm feeling it too-now that she's not worried about all the bad things that can happen she's enjoying it
Sue Leffler When we're riding correctly we pass that confidence on to our horses. Her confidence is a direct result of her being able to trust you and your good riding!

My initial response (in my head) was well it's a circle- it's hard to ride correctly when she's spazzing out. I have to get her to be calm first and then I can worry about how I ride. To be honest, I thought that I had even posted something to that effect but it didn't seem to get get on there. I didn't worry about it.

I have not really been worrying about my position but focussing on whether she's attentive and obedient in the beginning. And that is fair because of our history. But I kept returning to her comment in my head and when that happens it means that I am trying to work something out. What if I'm wrong I thought. What if it really is just what Sue said- if I ride correctly from the beginning would it make a difference? 

I decided to try it out. Today when I got on I started from the beginning focusing on my position. I did my best to make sure that I was riding as correctly as I could. I kept making adjustments. As usual Carmen started out with a shortish, stiff walk. I didn't worry about it- I just kept my seat following and encouraging her to step more under and through. I kept my elbows bent and ignored any head tossing. I breathed deeply and worked on not stiffening any muscles but not letting them flop either.

Carmen's ear began to twitch back to me and in no time at all was focussed on me. When she was diverted by something else and thought about fleeing I kept myself soft and rode her forward. And guess what? At all. Not even at C. She did leave once and we went to work and that was the end of that.

As we progressed I could feel her trying to bulge the middle circle towards C instead of away. First time ever. It was a happy problem to fix. The ride was not long because of the heat and humidity. Caelen was with us and after I dropped the gate rail.
Caelen: Are we just going down to the barn or do you want to go around the field?
My responses was let's not mess with this and just do the safe thing. 
Then I thought again- let's try it. If it goes wrong I can hop off and lead her. 
With that we went out - Irish and Caelen in the lead. I warned her to stop if she head me say 'whoa' and that I might used Irish's butt as a bumper.

But we didn't need to worry. She was fine. A little tight when we first turned right instead of left. But we walked between the fence and treeline and she was perfect. I even was able to stop and take a photo:
look at the listening ears. they were on me the whole way

I learned something today- I knew that riding defensively was not helping but I hadn't truly realized  that focussing on  correct riding can prevent issues right from the beginning. I swear that I should have known that but what can I say? It sometimes takes me a while.

So maybe it's not the secret to happiness (heck, it might not even be a secret to anyone else but me) but it is the secret to happy ears. And happy riders.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lesson Recap

I had a riding lesson yesterday and it was incredible. It's the first lesson I've had in my ring that wasn't about being in the ring.

I rode Carmen in the  morning and we continue to work on changing her mind about the C end of the ring. And the approach is truly working- she's becoming happier there and when worried her ear flicks back to ask me if it's okay. When I tell her it is she relaxes. I am asking her to stay but I'm not making her stay, but given that the rest of the ring is the work area she's beginning to like standing down at that end. I'm liking it too. While I will use force if necessary it's not really fun if it's all the time.  I am startng to feel the connection and trust that has been lacking in our partnership. I kept the morning ride short becasue of the lesson that evening and because she was very cooperative.

When Karen arrived for the lesson Carmen was quite mellow. I did little inhand work and then I hopped on. I explained to Karen that the zone between R and C was 'rest' and between A and R was work. I also explained that if there was a spook I would be dealing with it and not to be alarmed if I suddenly did something different. I love that she simply said 'no problem. We will follow your program'. I knew that if she had concerns she would discuss them with me but there was no expectation that I would hand over all control to her-I had a say as well.

We began by walking a circle and focussing on my seat and encouraging her to walk from behind. It was helpful to pactice that and get feedback- I worry that I might drive too much with my seat because if one pound of pressure is good, 10 must be awesome (overachiever that's me!). I've been riding Carmen in the ring for a long time and I was thrilled that today (this morning as well) she was not cutting off the circle on the 'C' side. Instead she stayed right with me. We then went on to trot and Karen commented that she could see I had been working on my posting since my lesson with Sue. It feels great when homework is obvious. Karen had me stretch out my spine as I rose and when I got it, it felt very good and Carmen immediately rounded up her back and stepped through.

There was a small scoot down at the A end of the arena and I immediately stopped Carmen and backed her up and carried on.

We practiced sitting trot- I tend to let the motion be absorbed by my waist and let my hips move. It was interesting to try to figure that out. First I just stiffened my torso but my hips were still tight so I bounced. Carmen was not impressed with that- her ears came back and she was 'what the heck are you doing up there?'  By focussing on the inside hip I was able to get the motion and then figure it would for the otehr. I also stretched up my spine and immediately tucked in pelvis.It felt so much better for both of us. But it required the use of different muscles so was difficult to maintain for long.

I needed to talk to Karen so  took Carmen up to the rest stop and we chatted there. Once we talked through the exercise we went back to the work area and I alternated posting and sitting. That made it easier to spend time doing it 'right' rather then struggling when it went wrong.

Before I knew it 45 minutes had passed. I was happy to end it there and Karen and I talked about it.
I was thrilled that we spent all that time on training and not on getting/keeping her attention. Carmen was with me the whole time. Her moments of worry were brief and we carried on. Overall she was calm and relaxed. Evn more important was that she was happy in her work.

I'm going to carry on with my work to make C the happy place but will slowly increase the work zone until we can work and rest in all areas. I put her away and started supper for everyone while Cynthia had her lesson. Irish was great and perhaps I'll get Cynthia to do a guest blog post. :)
When I came into the house Ed asked me how it went and I exploded into a excited and happy rendition. He probably didn't get the dressage stuff but the not spooking stuff her understood and he looked happy and relieved.

photo credit to Caelen
Thanks to Royce I have a sensible horse and I have tools to deal with her. Thanks to others like Roz, Sue, Karen, Joanna we will be tackling the finer points of riding correctly.