Saturday, April 12, 2014

Beginning The On/Off Thing

Sorry for the delay in posting this, I am actually in Colorado. It was a quick decision. The Dick Pieper clinic that Cindy D. and I had planned on attending...Well, Dick was not going to be there for medical reasons and I didn't know if I was all that interested in going to the replacement clinician. I found out that there was still an opening at a barrel clinic I have been wanting to go to for a couple of years, so I decided to head home a couple days early and go to that. It was worth it. If for no other reason than this clinician does not think that I was crazy in the head when I laid out what was going wrong and my plan for fixing it.

I already had a firm plan of action in my head...I had started on it with Moon before I even left Arizona.

The first few days were spent getting the majority of the stiffness out of Moon's jaw and MAKING him work in a softer frame. Yes, making. I have let Moon get so stiff in the jaw that the first few days took some serious convincing just to get him intimidated enough to even begin to think about wanting to be soft.

The use of words like 'making' and 'intimidated' generally do not make people happy. There are such negative connotations attached to them in the modern thought process of 'working with your horse' and 'Natural Horsemanship'. But here's the thing...When a horse decides to get mentally tough or locked up...The only way you are going to make them even think about looking for an alternative approach is to get right in the middle of them and say, I'm not giving up until you give up. And if it takes wrestling with them...That is just what you have to do. Pookie doesn't get his way for just giving me a 1/2 assed softening, followed by an instant re-stiffening the second I release pressure. Pookie needs to learn that when I ask him to get soft...I mean get soft and stay soft. No ifs ands or buts.

It's the horse's own mental state that makes them makes them this resistant to just getting soft and breaking over...and staying there. A soft minded horse WANTS to be in that position.

The more I worked with Moon for those few days, the more I realized that his mental resistance is the root of so many of the problems we have been having. It's not wonder I was having a hard time maintaing any consistency with him. He just wanted to get pissed and waller around doing everything BUT get soft for the first few days. He's get stiff, then he'd over-react, then he'd get stiff AND over-react. But I kept after him every day until on Thursday, he finally started out from the get go thinking about how to please me. I had finally unlocked his mind and he decided that with such black and white expectations... maybe fighting me wasn't the best approach.

And black and white expectations are the cruxt of the whole process. I set my mind to exactly what I wanted him to do and I didn't let up until he gave me that. I just had to wait him out, let him waller around in that ugly place in his head until he got tired of it and then then when he gave me what I wanted, exactly what I wanted. I gave him what he wanted...release. The fact that it took 3 whole days to change his mind, tells you how tough-minded Moon can be.

In his own way, Moon has switched to an 'on' position, much like Jet had gotten stuck in an 'on' position. Jet is a hot, sensitive horse...Being stuck in an 'on' position made him act like a lunatic. Moon, being more of the introvert, he got stuck in the 'on' position and just sulled up. Both horses had the same problem though...Both of them were mentally resistant and neither one of them knew how to get out of this 'on' position.

It was things that I did with Jet that made me realize I needed to just let Moon swill in the ugliness that was going on his own mind and figure out a way to deal with it if I wanted him to start getting a soft mind.

I spent a lot of time trying to teach Jet how to come down, switch 'off'...but it wasn't until I started pushing him and making him deal with his own craziness that he finally started figuring out how to turn off. You can't talk a horse out of an 'on' position. They have to find it for themselves. That means you just have to keep applying the pressure that makes them uncomfortable until they get tired of just over-reacting, figure out how to let that mental resistance go and then start thinking of a way to make the uncomfortableness go away. You have to wait it out. Now, in Jet's case, he was far too dangerous for me to do that with, when I was on his back...So when I would start to feel him get mentally and physically locked up...I'd get off.  And then I'd go to working him on the ground. I'd make my energy match his and just keep applying pressure until I could see that he was getting tired of acting all crazy and actually trying to figure out how to make it stop. Once I had control of his feet again and I could see his eyes softening and thinking about what I was actually asking him to do...THAT is when I would back off, lower my energy level and see how relaxed I could get him.

No horse wants to live in the 'on' position. It's an unhappy place for them to be, but if they get there and you don't MAKE them figure out a way to work through it, they will just stay there and deal with less and less. You have to make being 'on' uncomfortable enough for them that they have to start rethinking their decision to hold onto that resistance. Only then can they start to figure out how to turn off again and it generally doesn't take them long to figure out that they like living that way a whole lot more than the other way.

With Moon it was the same process of allowing him to wallow in his own resistance, I stayed on his back, but he still had to sort it out in his head and start thinking about, 'What exactly is she asking me here?'...Then I'd lower my energy level and let him come down, get the correct movement and let him stop and think about what had just happened.

This is not a revolutionary technique...Pretty much every clinician on the road employs it. Pretty much ever trainer uses it. What happens to a lot of us is...When a horse gets radically 'up' and overwhelmed (like Moon does at events)...We want to shut the horse down. Nobody really particularly enjoys riding through a tornado. The problem is, when we get in the habit of shutting our horses down before they have worked through their 'issue' on their own, we aren't helping teach them how to deal with stress and we are encouraging mental resistance. Horses are pretty quick to pick up on the fact that all they have to do is start acting ridiculous and we will go out of our way to soothe them.

This is especially apparent at events, where a horse IS more inclined to want to show their mental resistance. We have our minds focused on getting ourselves mentally ready to compete, a horse feels that and wants to start getting ready too and if they get a little too excited, we immediately go to shutting them down.

Here is one of the biggest problems in barrel racing...People make way to big of a deal about how quiet a horse enters the arena. Heck, even last year, there was a big ta-do over how quietly Taylor Jacobs horse walked up the alley. Any body keep track of how many barrels she hit? A LOT of them. Yes, I know she has some smoking fast runs and reset the T&M arena record. But the fact remains she hit a lot of barrels. So how much did it matter that her horse walked up the alley?

The fact is...barrel horses have to get 'up' to compete. Some hold in their minds well and you don't visibly see just how prepared they are to run...and some of them show it externally. The prance, they dance, they jig, they go sideways. Sometimes we just have to acknowledge and ACCEPT that this is how they get prepared to make their run. The more we try to change that...the more mental resistance we create and the horse goes from being merely excited to thinking...OMG, I'm being made to hold all of this energy IN and I'm losing my mind. That is when they start fighting the gate.

Of course, anybody that has barrel raced much, knows that if a horse that didn't used to have problems at the gate suddenly starts fighting and resisting going in...It's almost always a physical issue. It wasn't like I didn't have Moon looked at by vets when he started showing resistance...I did. I even mentioned ulcers to one of them. She just looked at Moon...Mr. Docile...and said she didn't think that was likely. See, he even fooled professionals. LOL. I don't feel so bad that it took me awhile to figure out what was going on. ;-)

I also messed up because I was so busy shutting Moon down at the mere hint of him getting excited at the gate that I caused him to internalize his stress even more and made the situation worse. I started keeping him away from the gate until I HAD to get up there and go in and make a run. I wanted him to be too quiet. It's ironic in retrospect because I have taken gate soured horses in the past and turned them around...and I didn't do that by hiding in the corner with them. LOL. I made those suckers get front and center until they learned how to handle the stress. It's rather funny the lengths we will go to keep the horses that we are emotionally invested in out of stressful situations. Which is why I literally had to start thinking of Moon as if he wasn't 'Moon'. I took a step back, looked at him from the viewpoint of 'What if this was some problem horse I just randomly picked up because I knew I could fix him?' Making myself think of him in an objective manner like that is allowing me to see what is truly going on with him and I'm kind of shocked by the gap between the horse I 'knew' and the reality of the horse he is.

Here's the thing....Moon's brain is nowhere near fried. He's having trouble figuring out how to deal with his anxiety....But quitting him without teaching him how deal with it, is not what I would call a beneficial solution. He'll just find something else to get emotionally disturbed about on down the line and I'd have to quit doing that too, just like I did the rail classes, then reining and he wanted to get hot when he was being roped on too, but I was lucky enough that I was around the right kind of people that make me work him through it and he did finally settle in. See, Moon is not a one-trick pony. He's a been-there-done-that horse. I just kept switching disciplines because he always struggled to settle...Which is a revelation in hind-sight. It's our job as trainers/competitors to better the horses we work with, not go, 'Oops, I wrecked this one, I'll just quit him and start on another one'. There are too many people who do that already. I have no intention of ever belittling one of my horses like that.

BTW...The clinician watched Moon work and said, 'Holy hanna...That's a NICE horse'. (grim smile)...

Of course you know there's more to the story...It's the Moon Saga. LOL. :-)


Madeline C. said...

I agree with you. Sometimes you can't take the easy root and you just have to say, "Dude, you're doing this. Trust me, you'll see I'm right." Then when they get it, it's "smooth" sailing from there. It's like being the bad cop as a parent.

Kestrel said...

His number is up! Once he gets the fact that you're not going to reward him for being a snot, he'll figure it out in a hurry.

Faith Kingston said...

This was a really great post! I do get embarrassed when my horse gets hot and ready to go. There is so much crap about barrel racers not being able to ride and ruining horses and for sure some of that is deserved, but when my horse is "up" I want to shut her down to prove that I am a good horsewoman, that my horses's brain isn't fried from barrel racing, that my horse isn't 'one of those' horses. It's really dumb to care about what I look like, and what others might say about me, but I haven't quite let go of that yet. A little more seasoning and I should get there. :)
It's also really difficult for me to maintain a little emotional and mental distance from my horse. I only ride and compete on one mare- so I get too emotionally involved, making excuses for her, agonizing over whether or not a problem is physical or attitude. I'm in the weird spot of going from 'trainer' to 'competitor'.
Anyways, just wanted to say what a great post this is, and I really enjoy reading your thought processes as you deal with different issues. Valuable stuff!

RuckusButt said...

I really enjoyed reading this and thinking about it in your words. You have made me very happy I have the coach I do, as she deals with Armani's resistance in this way. Not with anger but with persistence. He can fuss and be resistant and she continues to work him through it, offering a place of softness but not giving in to him until he yields into that place. She doesn't change what she asks and he doesn't get the release until he does what he's been asked.

I have been less consistent and have realized it over the winter. I try but usually give in to be "nice". The inconsistency is anything but nice to him, really. So I've been working on it with an enlightened perspective.

Even on the ground, I'm making him deal with his anxiety as best as I can figure out how to. Usually after Saturday lessons he is tired and quiet but he was worried about the garage door at the end of the barn being open (finally warm enough) and he could see the turnout w two new horses in it. He wouldn't settle and was trying to barrel through me. I asked with reasonable firmness for him to stand, then when he tried to drag me off, I lit up just as big and backed him the eff up. I actually yelled at him while I was backing him, "You need to learn to Deal.With.Your.Shit" Suddenly he was paying attention to me and was calm the rest of my time with him. Still had an eye on the new horses and that's fine, but it didn't affect where his body was, which is what I was asking.

I didn't break down the thinking that much at the time. But after reading your post it makes a lot of sense.

Shirley said...

Another great post, BEC, and especially interesting to me as we just had Rio at a Jim Anderson clinic and focused on dealing with his resistance. He was pretty used to us shutting him down when he ramped up instead of making him work through it, and Jim gave us some things to work on to change that.