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Sunday, 20 January 2013

Nature in Horsemanship by Mark Rashid

Nature in Horsemanship, Discovering Harmony Through Principles of Aikido by Mark Rashid.

This book was highly recommended in a Straightness Training webinar so I was eager to read it. I've loved all Mark Rashid's other books and expected to love this one too, and I did - mostly!!

The forward by Mark's wife, Crissi McDonald, made a very promising start. Crissi has studied the latest research in brain anatomy and function and has some interesting things to say about the differences between human and equine brains.

She writes about the three different parts of the brain and each has it's own ways of "seeing and remembering things, and it's own way of processing information." She says that the neocortex or cerebral cortex part of the brain is highly developed in humans and we spend a large amount of time using that part of the brain. She says that one of the functions of the neocortex is to"take in millions of bits of information each day, process it all then put it all together in one big picture" but that animals do the opposite. "Horses are creatures of specificity. They see everything..... The way we see things, and the way our brains process what we see. makes it impossible for us to spot changes in detail that horses can't help but see." She says we should make allowances for this when horses show fear for no reason that we can see and "step out of our own perspective and take what horses do far less personally." She says Mark often tells people "Horses aren't doing anything to us, they are just being horses."

The book then begins with an account of Mark's early Aikido experiences which I found very uncomfortable reading and it certainly put me off the idea Aikido completely - I'm far too pacifist! I cheered up immensely when he started relating horse training experiences and continued with the book, reading the other Aikido stories somewhat reluctantly.

Mark has some interesting things to say about the nature of 'connection' with the horse, saying that "in it's purest sense (connection) is nothing more or less than a form of very subtle communication between two individuals." He says that horses are better at forming connections than we are and will strive to do so, given the chance, with "every rider in nearly every situation" and that instead of always trying to connect with them we should just allow them connect with us.

Mark writes about developing a connection through clarity of intent. He says that if the rider is very clear in their intent and very soft with cues, or even leaves them out completely and just visualises what they want, "the horse seems not only to be able to connect to the rider on an extremely subtle level, but the development of subtle responses appears to be immediate and long lasting."

He also talks about Ma-ai, as it's called in Aikido, 'the joining of shared space' and working with the horse to find "mutual softness within a shared space." He says that the better they both become at this the smaller this shared space can become until it "becomes so small physical aids are no longer needed...."

He does write a little about clicker training. I think what he writes is fair and unbiased but he only seems to have met clicker trainers who refuse to use any pressure at all and so have very limited success with their horses. I REALLY wanted to show him the other, incredibly successful side of clicker training!!!

I really liked this paragraph in the last few pages of the book:

"...the type of horsemanship I'm referring to here doesn't belong to anybody; it isn't trademarked and it doesn't have a name. It is simply the honest communication between horse and rider based on the best understanding we have for one another at any given time. It's taking the good with the bad without placing blame or fault, and doing our best to direct energy instead of stifling or stopping it."

A very interesting, thought provoking read and I learnt a lot although I'm very glad I have clicker training on my side and so don't feel the need for Aikido and I won't be taking it up any time soon!!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Bella and Grace.

Snow has stopped play here at the moment but over the weekend I had another little play with Bella and rode Grace for the first time in ages.

Bella and I did some more in hand work. We began with shoulder in, renvers, travers and half pass, in walk and trot. Then we did some Spanish Walk, mainly focusing on getting lots of forward movement in Spanish Walk, as I want to try and use Spanish Walk to find passage.

We finished with some in hand canter work. We've done quite a bit of this in the past with Bella on the end of a line a few yards away from me but this time, after watching some ST videos, I had her right next to me using normal reins and it was really awesome! It's quite something to be that close to a cantering horse and she seemed huge every time her forehand left the ground!  I really enjoyed the sensation of being so close to all that power and energy, something I don't really think of when I'm riding her. It was very inspiring and I'm really excited about doing more of it!

Then I rode Gracie and I had totally forgotten how good her lateral work is, in walk and in trot. I really enjoyed riding her and when the weather improves again I must do a bit more with her. It's so useful to have a second, educated horse to try things out with while they're still fresh in my mind from the session with the first horse. So much of training seems to me to be about visualising what you're aiming for and concentrating on feel and timing. I get all fired up and keen working with Bella and it's great to have Grace as back up, so I can experiment some more while I'm on a roll!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Beginning Working Towards Piaffe and Passage.

Today, after a longish layoff due to Christmas, bad weather, etc., I took Bella into the school to have a play with diagonalising her walk, in hand, to begin the half steps of piaffe.

We warmed up at liberty with some lateral work, some Spanish Walk and some of our 'drunken walk' (I walk backwards crossing one foot behind the other and Bella walks forwards towards me crossing one front foot in front of the other every step. She is brilliant at this and loves to show off). I pinched the walk from Rosie Howard!!

Bella was very happy to be working again and was giving everything her utmost effort. Since she had last been in the school I'd moved some things around with the telehandler, in an effort to tidy up outside the school, and she was a bit tense along that side to begin with but Bella is like me - when we are clicker training we both give each other total concentration and completely lose ourselves in what we're doing, so she soon forgot to worry about anything.

We then did a bit of Straightness Training. I have always taught all the lateral movements with me on the outside of the bend so ST travers has taken Bella and I a few goes to accomplish but we've just about got it now. I do find it a lot harder to control the bend, the angle and the degree of crossing of the hind legs from the inside of the bend though.

Diagonalising the walk to get the half steps of piaffe is more difficult than Marijke de Jong makes it look! The idea is to get in time with the horse lifting the outside foreleg and then tap the inside hind leg as the outside fore advances, to try and get the inside hind to speed up and catch up the outside fore.

My main difficulty is that I'm trying to spot and mark (click) the slightest try but, although I can spot it easily enough on video, when you're up close and focusing on the horse's inside hind leg, and can't really see the outside front leg at the same time, it's very hard to know if the inside hind is beginning to come through faster or not! I'd also been too lazy to move some poles and blocks out of the way before I began and nearly fell over them several times while walking backwards! Gave Bella a laugh anyway!!

I decided I needed to think about it some more and had a little play at trying to use Spanish Walk to begin passage. I was quite pleased with how this went. Bella was giving me her most extravagant SW today with loads of enthusiasm so we did a bit of that, then I asked her for a very slow trot and tried to introduce an element of Spanish Walk to the trot, with lots of upward motions of my hands while doing Spanish Walk myself.

To begin with Bella thought I wanted canter and gave me some beautiful canter transitions which I had to fight with myself not to click and reward! Then, when that wasn't the answer, she really did start to elevate her trot for a few strides, which I quickly clicked. I'm not sure it was any more than her very best trot when ridden but it was much more expressive than I've had from her in hand before, and at a very slow speed, so it is definitely a step in the right direction! Thinking about it now, it was her very best ridden trot but with less forward momentum and as much or more upward momentum, so that's got to be good!

The shocking thing was how much I was puffing at the end of this! I used to be fit!!! Need to get out running again asap!!!!

We finished with our best bow and both reluctantly left the school. Since I began clicker training all my horses try to steer me passed the gate to stay in the school, they enjoy working in there so much.

I just LOVE playing about like this, seeing what we can work out between us. Bella is so receptive to all my daft ideas and so keen to try anything and everything. I am SO lucky to have her to play with!!!

Friday, 4 January 2013

Gallop to Freedom by Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado.

I've just finished reading this fabulous book by Frederic Pignon and Magali Delgado, the founders of the horse spectacular Cavalia. Magali has also trained and successfully competed a Lusitano stallion at Grand Prix level dressage.

This book would be worth buying for the beautiful photographs alone but it is also packed full of their training strategies and insights into their horse's personalities.

Their training ideology was developed as a result of having to deal with a very difficult and aggressive Lusitano stallion, Templado, who had been badly handled by previous trainers, and who became the star of their show and their best friend.

His training had to be based on finding something that he really enjoyed doing and using it to earn his co-operation, then building on that. They say that "Games properly set up and used can be an aid to motivation, concentration, and memory, and help understanding between you and your horse to grow. They can also be used to push the horse to do more........Learning to go beyond what he (the horse) has already achieved brings an increase in pleasure and develops intelligence. This in turn enables the horse to better control his fears and to acquire a high standard of physical and mental health." They emphasise the need to "....encourage the horse to think for himself and "act on" rather than "react to" my wishes. They say that "Through the use of games a horse goes on discovering new and better ways to learn..... The 'distance' between us shrinks and our pleasure in the horse's company grows."

They are very clear about establishing boundaries and not letting the horse walk all over them but they avoid conflict as much as possible. They say that: "A common mistake is too much 'snuggling up' to the horse from the beginning. You should keep the distance appropriate to your relationship. I don't immediately let the horse invade my space. Quite apart from the danger, it puts you on the wrong footing. Once there is total confidence and respect in both directions it becomes another matter."

However they say that "Too strong a use of pressure results in opposition. Why? Because you have introduced the concept of conflict" and that "People have the misguided idea that you must 'win' every disagreement with a horse - but it is not a war. And sometimes you must be prepared to 'lose'."

The book also states that "Confidence between man and horse is not something that arrives on a plate. And you cannot just wait for it passively - you have to work for it. ...We both have to earn it."

Something I found especially interesting was an observation about contact between faces. I have noticed that since I started clicker training my horses love to get their faces close to mine and especially their eye really close to my eye, as if they're trying to peer in and work out what I'm thinking! Fredric and Magali say that once a horse really learns to trust you they find comfort from contact between their face and yours and that it signifies to the horse that "things are good between you. It is the same with two horses who feel good together." Thinking about it horses who are good friends often do stand with their heads close together but it wasn't something I had especially thought about before.

I loved this book - I loved the beautiful Baroque horses and Frederic and Magali's brilliant insights, thoughts and observations. They warn the reader that the book isn't a training manual or method (and they warn against the strict following of methods as every horse is different and unique and should be allowed his quirks and individuality) but I found loads of useful information within it's pages. I loved the way Magali competed at top level dressage to prove that horses can be trained using freedom and fun, and 'tricks', and still achieve top competition results, even with a breed not ordinarily chosen for top level dressage competition. My dream is to one day to prove that clicker training can do the same!


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I am a clicker training addict and there is no cure - thank goodness!!!