Experimenting Over Spring Break

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This week I have been enjoying Spring Break–the temperatures climbing into the 50’s, the warmth of the sun through my open car sunroof, the birds chirping from dawn to dusk, the flowers poking their necks out from the ground… The time off teaching has allowed me to travel down to the barn every day, five days in a row (as opposed to two or three times with trainer Kim riding three times). It really has been an experiment to see what type of progress I could make if I took control of Gugi’s training. I went into the week not knowing what would happen without Kim working her. What would I learn from Ngugi’s Word if I truly listened? Would she regress and basically tell me that she rejects my riding? Would she tolerate my riding but remind me that progress would be fleeting? Or, would she accept my riding and tell me that progress really is possible all on my own?
I’m confident that after the week, Ngugi’s Word told me the latter. I am at the point where my riding really is training or shaping her as opposed to just riding to make it through what she gives me. This week I successfuly created the ride I wanted to ride, and by the time day five (lesson day) came along, I actually jumped Gugi for the first time! I don’t have it on video, but I do have two videos of me cantering yesterday:

Of course, it’s not perfect. I’m still working on what Charles de Kunffy and horselistening.com describes as “the adhesive seat” or “moving to stay still.” I tend to lock up and rather than lift out of the saddle to allow Gugi’s back to naturally rise and fall below me with the rhythm her canter, I perch on the saddle and move against her. How does Gugi respond? Well, you’ll notice moments where she tosses her head, swishes her tail, or shows a tense canter that is either too fast or not forward flowing enough (so as to say it’s stiff, like me). But then there are moments where I remember feeling the coordination needed to ride “in” the canter as opposed to “on” the canter. In those moments I’m lifted far enough out of the saddle to release pressure off Gugi’s back, but I’m also more aware of my thighs and how I can control the flow of her canter movements with my thighs. I see a few moments in the videos where this does happen and we look connected.

So what’s holding me back from establishing the canter I want–the good canter–right from the start, right from the moment when I cue Gugi into the canter? Without a doubt, there’s still an element of fear that exists. In total (including the months prior to Gugi’s “locking up”), I’ve probably only cantered her 15 times or so. And, unfortunately, I have yet to fully “shake out” (reference to previous Florence and the Machine post) the image of Gugi throwing her previous trainer. Plus, every horse has her unique canter movement. Some seem to lag behind your leg in an top heavy, up-down movement. Some canters feel soft and forward floating. Gugi’s canter is still so new, so unfamiliar to me that I have yet to find the right words to describe her movements. I suppose that I’ll know when I’ve reached my goals with her canter when I can in fact put it into words.

In the meantime, Ngugi’s Word tells me that I’m on the right track!

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The Right Fit

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One Year Ago, I was in trouble. I owned a horse that terrified me. Every time I was around her, it was as though I was reliving my first year of teaching. I felt inexperienced and spineless, and I always had this severe pit in my stomach. Being around her made me feel insecure–so much so that my voice quivered and I became tongue-tied even trying to speak. It was like I was 21 again, teaching a room full of 18-year-old seniors. I felt lost and defeated.

One Year Ago, I made Skyview Farm Ngugi’s new home, and I put my trust into Kim Selby’s hands. It was a desperate attempt to keep Gugi and protect her from being passed to someone with inhumane intentions.
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One Year Ago, I would find myself browsing Dreamhorse.com because I had anything but my dreamhorse! I loved the idea of rescuing her from neglectful hands, but I didn’t like her. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was around her. Part of me was hoping just maybe Kim would really like her. Then I could just give her away and find my forever horse in the Dreamhorse classifieds.

One Year Ago, Gugi and I found the right fit. And it saved us.

This post is a dedication to Kim Selby, owner of Skyview Farm and Wellspring Riding Academy trainer located in Kankakee, Illinois. I hope to not only celebrate the gift Kim has with training challenging, special-needs horses like Gugi, but also speak to what Kim calls her “marriage counselling” between horse and rider. Here’s a picture from last summer of Kim and Gugi:
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Within the first 5 minutes of meeting Kim, you will learn two things: 1) Her love for and connection with horses is palpable, and 2) she loves to talk. This works out great for me because I went to Kim for help on partnering with Gugi, and also, I know that I learn best from talking through concepts. I will always need the instructor who breaks down the big WHY?, the big SO WHAT?

Thinking back to my first conversation with Kim over the phone, I knew then that she’d be that instructor for me, for us. I remember her explaining the mantra that stands at the core of her training: “Ask, don’t tell; soft, but firm; repetition, persistency, consistency.” I remember her telling me, “God gave me a gift with people and horses. It’s my goal in life to be a positive influence on the lives of the people and horses I meet.” I remember really believing in her. I remember counting down the days until I could bring Gugi to her positive environment (even though it’s nearly an hour and a half from my home).

And now it’s been a year. We’ve made so much progress–even if it’s been slow and steady. They say a horse mirrors her owner, or the owner mirrors her horse. Well, that’s how I learn. I may not be the first in the group to learn a new concept, but when I get it, I see things that others miss. Kim gets this about Gugi; she gets this about me. So while so many “talkers” don’t listen, Kim is an anomaly. She listens to both human and horse. And what the human isn’t understanding from the horse, she translates.

On the Wellspring Riding Academy Facebook page, you’ll read the following description:

Kim has developed a philosophy of balanced riding and a more natural approach to connecting and communicating with your horse.

I close with what I believe makes Kim Selby and Skyview Farm the right fit for Gugi and me:
1)Horses at Skyview farm either live outside year-round or spend the day outside with suitable paddock/pasture mates.
2)All riding disciplines are welcome.
3)Even at a busy horse show, Kim is still able to make everyone (even me who just brought Gugi there for the experience) feel important.
4)Kim welcomes diverse clinicians (she most recently hosted a dressage clinic, and will host a Natural Horsemanship clinic in April), and encourages students to analyze their riding through the lens of another trainer’s critique.
5)The farm is a work in progress. It is not one of those static farms that never grows or changes.
6)Cliques don’t exist. All riders are viewed equal regardless of whether they own a horse, attend shows, etc.
7)Lessons are truly opportunities for riders to try new things, take risks, go outside of their comfort zones, etc.
8)Lesson horses still have spirits.
9)Kim is the type of trainer who calls me after a training ride just to tell me how amazing my horse is.
10)Kim develops in her students not just good riders, but confident people.

And now I ask you to reflect on where your horse is stabled and who trains both you and your horse…
I would love to hear what makes it the right fit for you OR what you would add to your own top 10 list of what makes a good barn / trainer.

Horse play, Groundwork, Ride

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Today, I began our session with just letting her run the arena. The horses have been cooped up for two days due to rain and muddy pastures. She raced the arena and bucked and leaped, farting with each large frolic! Rob was quite impressed and felt a deep connection with her. Cats don’t quite have the same accoustics. Here’s that video (with me impersonating “horse play”).

That video doesn’t capture it all. She lapped the arena a dozen times, showing off flying lead changes and all. So I had to walk her down for close to 15 minutes for her to catch her breath. This next video shows me working with Gugi before getting in the saddle. Basically, it’s my way of getting our worlds connected. I want her looking to me for the next signal, the next direction, and when she does, it really translates nicely to a successful ride.

After about 10-15 minutes of groundwork, we were ready for me to get on. I’m not sure if the next few videos are in the order that they actually occurred, but I’m not entirely sure it matters. You’ll notice me working on keeping her mind occupied on different obstacles–the most recent one being what I like to call “trotting the diamond.” Basically, poles and cones are set up in the shape of a diamond. We practice extending he trot over the poles (which can also be set up to be little cross poles or X’s), and then contracting or collecting the trot around the cones. It has really helped me get comfortable with feeling Gugi extend her trot without getting nervous. I have the cones to circle around to get her slow and collected again before moving on to the next set of poles. Here they are:

Aside from a couple of trot-walk or trot-halt transitions where she braces herself and I need to work on finding that “forward into the hands” halt, I think this might be one of our finest trot sessions. In order to really see our progress, here’s a video from last December at another barn. She really looks like a different horse now compared to then:

Happy Birthday, Ngugi

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Today is Gugi’s 9th birthday, and here is a picture of us after one of the best rides I’ve ever had with her! These pictures capture my feelings of trust, pride, and partnership in Gugi.

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Here’s my view looking down to two great minds–Gugi and Rob, my husband, seem to be privy to something I don’t understand.

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And here is a picture that captures my husband’s supportive nature. Because I love horses and my partnership with Gugi, he makes an effort to come out once a month or so. He may not understand all the maneuvers or notice the nuances that separate a “great” ride from a “not so good” one, but that doesn’t matter to me. He loves Gugi because he knows that she makes me a better person and that the barn truly is my “happy place.” The fact that he joins me every so often to spend time with me and Gugi on the farm means more to me than any silly bouquet of flowers — I mean, they’re dying upon purchase and really ought to remind people of that. Or, they’re being bought to compensate for something… but all of this is really beside the point. Point is, I love that Rob loves Gugs, and this picture proves it!

Groundwork with Natural Horsemanship trainer, Indy

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Here’s a video of some groundwork with Natural Horsemanship trainer, Indy O’Connor. This was taken mid-January, around the time where we were working to unlock Gugi’s mind. I thought that inviting Indy down to evaluate Gugi might help give us new ideas on where to go with her training. Gugi’s mind wasn’t the only one unlocked… mine, too, was made more aware.

Aside from all the birds chirping, you’ll notice a lot of maneuvering based on placement of pressure. What this video does not capture are the moments earlier in the training session when Gugi was quite emotional–rearing a bit on the line and acting anxious. It’s no surprise then when I say my favorite moment in this clip is when Indy gets down on one knee and Gugi puts her head down to his lap. I’ve actually been practicing these strategies each time I go down to visit her now, and I love looking up at those big brown eyes from the ground. It’s a great trust exercise for me!

Here’s part II:

Snowy Gugi

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Passing a Setback Anniversary

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One year ago Ngugi and I faced our biggest setback–the setback that nearly divided us. I don’t have footage of the day she bucked and reared my previous trainer and friend off (and nearly trampled her), nor do I think it would be appropriate for me to publish. What I can write in words about March 5, 2012 arguably says more than posting that particular video.

Here it goes.

Last March was unseasonably warm in the Chicagoland area. Several days reached into the 80’s, and March 5th was one of those days. Add high winds and an uneducated Thoroughbred into the mix, especially one who I could only afford to train once a week, and you have the perfect recipe for disaster. Disaster it was. I remember commenting to my friend about how nice she was trotting when something seemed to startle her (maybe wind blew under her tail), and she took off–crow-hopping, bucking, rearing for 15 strides or so. Uncontrollable. I watched in agony as my friend tried to stay on. When she hit the ground and managed to roll out from unpredictable hooves, reality set in. I was in over my head with a horse that needed much more than I was prepared to give. Gugi proceeded to gallop the arena, screaming histerically for her friends, and I think my mind was racing just as fast. How would we be able to catch her? Would she trip on the loose, flapping reins? What if she jumps the gate and takes off around the property? What if this horse is too dangerous for me?…

We did catch her. The barn manager thought to bring out one of her pasture buddies so that Gugi would settle in the company of another horse and we could grab her at the gate. Eyes bulging and nostrils flaring to the rhythm of her heavy breathing, Gugi seemed disconcerned and completely disconnected from us. Even in our efforts to walk her and calm her, she looked through us with the eyes of a lost child. Sadly, I’d seen those eyes before in several students–the ones with severe behavior disorders who needed a more individualized learning program. And in that moment, I realized that I was both scared of her and helpless. In more ways than one I felt like a first-year teacher again. I felt lost myself…

So when my friend advised me to consider giving her up and looking for a more reliable and trustworthy mount, I did what seemed to work those early years in my teaching career. I didn’t give up. I looked at the problem through a different lens, spent a lot of time reflecting, and eventually changed what I was doing. This meant finding a new trainer (trainer Kim) who specializes in “the challenging horse.”

That is the short story of how we ended up and hour and a half away at Skyview Farm in Kankakee, IL. This is the first time I’ve written about March 5, 2012. Finally, I can “shake it out” as Florence and the Machine so emphatically sings.